The difficulties faced by the industry this year have brought the issue of maximising plant sales to the fore, and people from across the sector are calling for greater cooperation between different stages in the supply chain to help ensure that shocks like this year's weather can be overcome.
Growers' involvement with how plants are sold by retailers is a key aspect of boosting plant sales. In a paper presented at the recent International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS) conference, HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe said maximising sales and profitability is a shared objective between growers and retailers.
"The supplier of wild bird care products, for example, would not dream of leaving the sales of its products to the retailer alone," he argued. "They get involved in ordering, merchandising and promotion and are heavily relied on by the retailer for these services. The retailer trusts them to get it right and the category has seen huge growth.
"The relationship works differently for plant suppliers but plant sales are not maximised and grower and retailer lose out to products given more attention by the supplier. The real competition for garden centre plant suppliers comes from bird seed, candles and lawn feed. Plant producers need to collaborate with retailers to drive sales."
Such collaboration is not widespread, but some growers have been successful in attempts to get involved in the retailing of their products. Supplier of starter plants to garden centres KinderGarden Plants takes an holistic approach, aiming to provide the retailer with everything they need.
"We provide the retailer with a complete package solution - benching system, high-impact point of sale (POS) and multiple plant deliveries per week to keep the display stands looking tip top," says general manager Ian Cole. "The end result is a package that minimises the risk for retailers and maximises sales when demand kicks-off."
Bransford Webbs managing director Geoff Cesar adds that the company's Campaign Plants initiative, which involved providing posters and "table talkers" to garden centres, was successful. "We got some really nice photographs of the plants used in pots and in the garden - aspirational images to give people ideas," he explains.
"We put them on a poster with three square shots and table talkers with the same images as the poster to go on coffee shop tables and then put the plants underneath. About 50 centres did that. We needed a fourfold uplift in sales to justify the increase in POS spend and we achieved that. The initiative came from us rather than us being asked to do something."
He stresses that the choice of plants to promote in this way was important. "We were looking at the sort of products that were proven. People had become complacent with them and we were trying to give them a spotlight again. We wanted to see whether we could bring the focus back and we did see that increase in sales. It didn't feel like a new thing for us or our customers but to the gardeners coming into the centres it wasn't something they had in their gardens or were aware of."
Cesar explains that challenging years such as this one tend to knock such initiatives on the head, but he is keen to do more. "We've learnt about the type of photographs that work," he says. "People look at them and think 'that's what I like' or 'that's what I'll do' so they have to be realistic. The problem with coffee shops is that there is more and more stuff on the tables. We've started looking at what we've learnt through the whole exercise."
Retailers have to be comfortable with the idea for it work, Cesar maintains. "They have to put up the posters and put out the table talkers in the coffee shop. You need the material to be used."
Understanding the market
Ball Colegrave marketing manager Stuart Lowen adds: "The key is an understanding of the market and finding ways to stimulate consumer demand. This allows us to help the retailer and drive profitable sales for everyone - from breeder to grower, retailer and satisfied home gardener."
He maintains that the introduction of innovative varieties supported by ideas and material for retailers has been key to boosting sales. He uses the Trailing Pansy Cool Wave as an example. "This is a major breakthrough in plant breeding offering new market opportunities for growers and retailers and a truly wonderful consumer performance.
"Cool Wave is offered with a total added-value solution for retailers. It could do for the pansy market what Surfinia has done for the trailing Petunia market, backed up by some great display ideas and outstanding innovative POS. More on the launch package will be released soon."
Another aspect is to ensure that information about the product is passed from grower to retailer and onto the consumer. Lowaters Nursery director Charles Carr told the IPPS conference that information has to be passed right down the supply chain. "Everyone has the internet in their pockets," he says. "Not every garden centre has staff who know everything about plants. Now they can scan QR codes to get information."
The FloraLinQ QR code system created by Floramedia is one example of how the technology can be used. The codes link to information such as planting schemes and possible companion plants. Floramedia provides a full range of materials, including labels, packaging, POS, catalogues and a picture library.
"We work very closely with growers and retailers so we understand the needs of both," says Floramedia managing director Nick Mathias. "Everyone is trying to make sure that the product is better than other similar things sold elsewhere and giving added value. Our FloraLinQ system is trying to give that greater value to the product."
The links between growers and retailers are already strong, with them working together in various ways to help plant sales, Mathias argues. "The most important factor in buying a plant is how attractive and healthy it looks," he maintains. "Keeping plants in good health is a challenge for all retailers. Beyond this, thoughts turn to seeking better ways to inspire, inform and incentivise customers. Unlike bird care products, plants are not so easily presented in well-organised packages. Getting over the message about the benefits of buying one plant rather than another has to be established in other ways."
One difficulty faced by nurseries is the competition, with garden centres sourcing plants from a number of different growers. This makes it a struggle for growers to work with retailers, for whom it may not be worthwhile working heavily with one of many suppliers.
"We are all trying to get a little more space in the garden centres," explains Cesar. "We might think we're the bee's knees but you go to the centres and you just have two benches. You can do it if your product is going to sell. If it's a well-proven fast mover, then you're okay. If it's something that has worked in the past but not in the past two or three years, then it still has got mileage.
"Consumers don't remember what was out there two-to-three years ago. Retailers might think about moving it to the benches at the back but if you move it forward the sales are definitely there. It's what we're all out to do and you've got to come up with a persuasive argument."
He adds: "You are responsible for the way your product sells through in the garden centres. It's your responsibility to provide the information and the material to ensure that the product sells. Retailers have got enough on their plate. They are not going to lose sleep over selling 80 or 90 per cent of your product, but we will. It's up to us."
Briercliffe suggests a more collaborative approach because it is often too expensive for growers to service garden centres on their own. "One route we are discussing is to provide independent consultancy support for garden centres on how to make planterias more profitable," he says.
"Consultants cost money and it would be something supported by growers and retailers. It's not that retailers don't know what they're doing, but it's something we can develop more in this sector, bringing strong retail principles into planterias. We can work on setting a benchmark for a profitable and successful planteria so they can get better. That's a better route than growers getting involved in merchandising themselves. It needs a more fundamental approach. Growers could help support the cost and if everyone is putting money into the pot the cost will be lower."
He continues: "It's all about overall profitability. If you increase plant sales overall it will make money for all those in the chain. It works in other areas and there's an opportunity for growers to take the initiative."