A NEW RESEARCH INITIATIVE: LISTENING TO YOUR CUSTOMERS


Diane Relf, Associate Professor
Department of Horticulture
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, VA 24061

[Originally published in AAN Today Dec 1989-Jan 1990: 11-12]

The first rule of good salesmanship is to listen to the customer; find out what he or she needs. Then show that your products will meet that need. This is not always as easy as it sounds; some customers really don't know what they want for their home landscape, while others must be coaxed into divulging their landscaping dreams. In either case, helping customers get the right plants for their situations can take both talent and patience.

The most successful retail outlets are the ones that excel at identifying and meeting customers' needs through a variety of approaches, such as informational signs, well-designed plant displays and demonstration gardens, and most importantly, staff members who sometimes act as detectives by listening to and understanding the customer. These methods bring customers back and create the reputation that brings in new customers.

Landscapers, retail nurserymen, and others who deal with the individual consumer have developed a variety of strategies for using their understanding of the person to increase sales at the point of contact -- the horticulture industry as a whole needs to develop similar strategies for "listening to the customer" in a broad context. The industry must then use what it learns by this process to initiate market development plans which will both bring in new customers and expand the products and services purchased by returning customers.

This method of "listening to the customer" on a large scale is similar to the product development research conducted by many industries. Psychologists and other trained professionals identify customer preferences, motivations, applications, and utilization of a product as part of its design and development.

Horticulturists, with their intensive plant science training, do not traditionally think of the customer as a legitimate area of concern when designing research projects. But understanding how and why people use plants can have two very valuable results. First, it can improve the quality of the experience people have with landscaping -- that is, it can ensure that they receive the benefits (conscious or unconscious) that they are seeking from the plants in their environment. Second, it can greatly increase the market for horticultural products and services.

Horticulturists can be effective researchers in this non- traditional area by working as members of an interdisciplinary research team with psychologists, sociologists, geographers, historians, urban planners, and others from the social sciences. Horticulturists possess the knowledge and skills to focus research on horticultural crops which best meet human needs and to obtain the data that can be of value to the horticulture industry, while social scientists possess the necessary "people skills."

Well-designed research could explain the benefits that people perceive they are gaining from plants and their motivation to buy plants or participate in gardening activities. Possible motivators which are worthy of research and potentially useful in market development include:

Improving the Environment - The value of plants in reversing the greenhouse effect and cleaning air, water, and soil of pollutants is already being utilized by both the tropical plant industry and urban foresters to encourage the use of more plants. Additional studies of the significance of environmental improvement through interior and exterior landscaping will be important in marketing activities.

Increasing Property Value - Weyerhauser reports that home owners perceive good landscaping increases property value. Additional research in this area may establish a market niche in which the "investment landscaper" responds to "plants for optimum investment" and "caring for your living investment" rather than the traditional "plant selection" and "landscape maintenance" approach.

Bestowing Social Benefits - Plants and landscaping provide many social benefits ranging from opportunities for social interchanges to forms of subtle competition. Plants can reflect how people perceive themselves; they can also serve to bestow social status. Perhaps research in this area could ultimately lead to the development of products and techniques that guarantee success or to market strategies for "designer plants" associated with well-known names such as "The Michael Jackson White Foxglove" or "The Paul Newman Spaghetti Squash."

Providing Preventative Therapy - Working with plants appears to reduce stress -- the perfect prescription for executive fatigue. Plants provide a quiet calm in the chaos of high-tech life. Insight into this preventative therapy could lead to the development of more public parks or to new gardeners taking time out from the rat race by spending their lunch time in the corporate gardens weeding, mulching, and harvesting flowers or vegetables.

Contributing to Physical Fitness and Health - Documentation of the value of horticultural activities in health and physical fitness could attract increased involvement from health-conscious individuals. The research could focus not only on muscle development and calorie use, but on blood pressure and heart rate.

There are undoubtedly many other factors which play a role in motivating people to be involved in the care and culture of plants or even the passive enjoyment of plants. Understanding these motivational factors has an obvious value in market development.

Another area of research in the relationship between people and plants that may not have an immediately obvious link to market development is the value of plants in changing human behavior. In Science, Roger Ulrich reported a study in which patients who had hospital rooms with windows facing a natural scene with trees had shorter post-operative stays and took fewer potent analgesics than comparable patients in rooms with windows facing a brick wall. If additional research documents that the view of plants can reduce medical demands (and thus costs), it is highly likely that insurance companies would encourage or require more extensive landscaping around health care facilities.

Political scientist, Donna Shalala, and public policy analyst, Julia Vitullo-Martin, have gone on record about HUD projects built without landscaping, trees, yards, and nice sidewalks -- they state that without these neighborhood basics, "what is built is an instant slum." If further research did, in fact, quantify beneficial changes in public housing through planting trees and other landscaping, significant market expansion would take place.

The members of the horticulture industry can expedite this process by encouraging interdisciplinary research in people/plant interaction at land-grant universities, public gardens, and other sites, and by setting aside research money specifically for this purpose. With the proper input and direction, this method of "listening to the customer" could produce useful results in a relatively short period of time - results which could provide a potent marketing/sales tool not only for the individual business, but for the industry as a whole.

Consider the impact that could be created by a long-term, national promotion using scientific proof that our green products not only improve the environment, increase property value, and contribute to health, but also reduce stress, increase human well-being, and enhance social development. This, coupled with proper follow-up information in the individual retail outlets, has the potential to bring the current gardening/landscaping trend into maturity.!ALI "SIDE BAR"

MARKET DEVELOPMENT THROUGH PRODUCT LINKAGES

Research can help us develop greater insight into the factors that motivate a consumer to buy plants and the benefits that they perceive they gain from plants. The resulting data can be used in developing diversified market strategies, such as the establishment of product linkages leading to promotional advertising that helps to expand your markets, but is paid for by other industries.

Mass marketers such as Pepsi Cola, IBM, and McDonald's have no obvious connection to horticulture, but with sufficient quantified data to convince company executives of the market value of this idea, they might develop some interesting market schemes.

For example, "Pepsi Plants Pride in America" could be a promotion for Pepsi that links the Take Pride in America Foundation, Gardens For All, Arbor Day Foundation, and several trade associations. Pepsi could encourage planting trees, shrubs, and gardens for environmental reasons (pollution control, greenhouse effect reduction, etc.); social reasons (build good neighborhoods by gardening in the ghettos); and aesthetic reasons (beautify America). They could give small "planting grants" through Gardens For All, the American Horticulture Society, the American Association of Nurserymen, and other groups. They could give away trees with coupons or bottle caps from Pepsi products through the Arbor Day Foundation. They could give awards and recognition through Take Pride in America.

But most important to you, they could give tremendous visibility to horticulture through some great commercials. Imagine: internationally mixed, inner city group converts trashed vacant lot into small garden paradise and sits back to drink Pepsi with Pride; young couple plants the first tree at their new home and sits back to drink Pepsi with Pride; middle-aged couple plants a tree in honor of their first grandchild and sips a Pepsi with Pride; older volunteers beautify the county courthouse of middle America, then drink their Pepsi with Pride.

Could the shoe industry be convinced of the need for a "gardener's shoe"? Mud doesn't stick to the bottom, it is reinforced for digging, designed to keep feet dry in the dew, and safe for mowing the lawn, but it's still attractive. This line of shoes could be sold to millions of American gardeners through national radio or television ads; the Nike of horticulture! While the product itself would be welcome, the promotional value for garden activites would be exceptional.

Many of the home magazines sell complete house plans and their readers write in with delight to describe how they built their home. They should be selling landscape plans along with each house - with complete construction, plant selection, and other pertinent information. This would be good for the magazine, the buyer, and the nursery industry.

Another linkage that is much more obvious, but would require a great deal more education, is in real estate and banking. Realtors and bankers actually sell or fund the purchase of more plants than all the nurseries in the country, without any plant- related advertising or promotion. Realtors generally ignore the landscape, giving it no more value in the appraisal than "a bonus to the buyer." And appraisers usually toss in the landscape for free. This may be primarily due to a lack of knowledge regarding the value a buyer places on the landscape or a lack of information for establishing a market price. Not placing a value on this green amenity not only cuts realtors' commissions, but also reduces the dollar amount of home loans, causing banks to lose potential interest fees.

Linkages and education can take place on both national and local levels. Even without research on human response to plants, you could gain some mileage in promotions by encouraging local banks to add landscapes to their litany of things they finance to bring people the "good life." Watch the television commercials. When a bank offers loans for cars, houses, and vacations, call them up and start educating them.

There are other linkages that you could make immediately. For example, nursing homes probably already bring residents to your nursery or greenhouse in the spring for a pleasant outing. Point out to them that this would make excellent video footage for their next televised sales promotion.

What products are advertized locally? Cars? Show them driving around a beautiful setting such as one of your recent landscape installations. Clothing? Invite the store to film the models walking around selecting flowers and shrubs from your nursery.

Take advantage of no-cost marketing. Innovative product linkages can get you high-quality advertising paid for by other businesses. It gets your product in front of the public frequently, enhancing the visibility of horticulture and increasing your sales.