PUTTING THE CONSUMER IN HORTICULTURE


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

[Originally published in PPGA News Feb 1990: 4-5]

Horticulturists are plant producers; as professionals they can grow fine specimens of excellent color, shape, and size. These beautiful plants are then presented to the public in hopes that enough will sell to provide the producer with decent profits. According to the National Garden Bureau survey, sales of horticulture products last year dropped by 10% or about 2 billion dollars. But the plants were not to blame. They had good quality, color, and size. Some blame competition from imports but, in fact, the cited figure was from reduction in total sales, not just sales of domestic crops. This drop in sales could be attributed to market shifts and economic factors - less disposable income, more demands on free time, fewer new home purchases.

Stopping this downward trend and making a significant increase in the market for horticultural crops and services cannot be accomplished by improved crop production techniques or new technologies alone. It is time for the research focus to shift toward the understanding of the consumer. In recent years there has been an increase in market studies which identify consumer preferences; these have been valuable tools in directing production and marketing efforts toward existing clientele. However, even these market studies fall short of developing the information necessary to expand markets in both the private and public sectors.

America is a very rich country with ample leisure time and discretionary income and gardening still ranks as third among outdoor leisure-time pursuits. Our per capita expenditure on plants and flowers is significantly less than in Europe and plantings in public and commercial areas could be utilized much more effectively, so there is still a tremendous market to be tapped. Unfortunately, we lack the information for product planning and market development to open many of the potential markets. We lack a basic understanding of the consumer - the motivation and benefits that bring people to horticultural pursuits and appreciation.

If the reason that sales have dropped and demand has not reached its potential is that consumers lack time to participate in gardening, then perhaps the solution is to develop products that require less time to meet consumers' needs. For the microwave and television generation who demand instant gratification, more improvements on pre-planted, self-watering plant packages are in order. Indeed, the problem is often a lack of time to learn how to garden successfully. Now that a delicious, properly seasoned meal can pop from the microwave in seven minutes, some people want this guaranteed success in other areas. Laura Ashley TM will color-coordinate their home while Ralph Lauren TM handles their wardrobe. Why should the flower borders be so much more demanding in knowledge and skill?

But in fact, the reasons people do or do not garden are much more complex, and market expansion demands a better grasp of the varied motivations. We attribute many benefits to gardening and being around plants. Among the most commonly given as reasons that people garden are:

environmental improvement;
increased property value;
stress reduction;
self esteeem;
increased physical fitness;
pride in accomplishment not found in one's career.

However, most of these explanations are based on subjective observations, not quantified data. Even where research has substantiated some basis for the claims, we really don't know how big a role any of these factors play in an individual's decision to participate in gardening, nor how they influence the type of gardening pursued.

Do older people garden in a substantially different way than younger ones? Research has indicated that experienced gardeners shift from vegetables to flowers. Can this and related information be useful in market planning?

The benefits to be gained from proximity to plants may have even greater impact if applied to public garden areas. Research has indicated that a view of plants instead of concrete will shorten a hospital stay and reduce the need for drugs. Can the landscape play a role in reducing medical costs? Experts maintain that without plants, HUD builds ghettos instead of neighborhoods. Could plants be of value in fighting crime, drugs, and other aspects of ghetto life? Flower festivals, well-landscaped theme parks, and historic gardens all play a significant role in the tourist industry. Can the flowers around an establishment influence the decision to patronize it? If so, why? Is a business with flowers perceived as cleaner, safer, more caring, friendlier? How can this information be used in the design of commercial buildings and the expanded use of horticultural products and services?

Can worker productivity be enhanced by interior plantscapes or by exterior lunch/break areas with plants and flowers? If so, what types and colors of plants are most effective?

Conclusion

Researching the benefits people get from being around plants can be as critical to the expansion of the horticulture market as marketing techniques that give a quick, "take-me-home" message at the point of sale.

Understanding the consumer's motivation and using that information to package products to meet the demands of today's clientele will be valuable in two ways: 1) to develop customers from among the 25% of American households who, according to National Gardening Association surveys, do not currently garden; and 2) to increase average expenditures per household on horticultural products by providing the consumer with greater success and products/crops which meet their needs.

Consumer research is traditionally conducted in the product development departments of big manufacturing companies such as Motorola by psychologists, psycho-physiologists, and similar professionals. In horticulture, this research can be conducted by interdisciplinary teams of horticulturists at universities, arboreta, and botanical gardens working with psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others. However, for these horticulturists to go beyond traditional production-oriented research will require the support of all facets of the horticulture industry.

You, the members, have challenged PPGA to develop long-range marketing plans. Support of research into human responses to plants must be part of that plan and the funds to do this research must come, at least in part, from the industry. In this way, PPGA members can encourage researchers at land-grant universities to work with their counterparts in the social sciences to develop the information necessary to expand horticultural markets.

MARKET DEVELOPMENT THROUGH PRODUCT LINKAGE

When the consumer, rather than the crop, becomes the focus for market research and development, opportunities for innovative market expansion become available. One method that can prove to be both effective and cost efficient is product linkages. Existing marketing efforts for products or services that are not currently linked to horticulture can be expanded to market specific horticultural crops as well. Several such linkages can be seen even before research is begun; however, a better understanding of the consumer will spark many more ideas.

For example, the Laura Ashley TM line of fabrics and wallpapers is frequently based on a floral theme. A Laura Ashley TM patio/deck/garden line could include color-coordinated furniture and containers and named (trademarked?) varieties of flowers to use for the most outstanding effect. The plants and flower bed plans could be purchased at any garden center affiliate of Laura Ashley, Inc. (a member of PPGA perhaps?); thus the extensive promotional efforts of this company would be brought to bear on the horticulture industry.

For minimal maintenance and bright spots of color in the yard, garden centers might team up with Lawn Doctor TM to produce a "package of color" - 2 to 3 foot diameter concrete rings, 8 to 12 inches deep, with potting soil, appropriate sun- or shade- loving plants, even a trickle irrigation system - to be contracted to the homeowner, installed in full bloom, and maintained on a schedule with the lawn (i.e.; bulbs in spring, geraniums in summer, and mums in fall).

Television could be used more extensively - game shows could award free vacations to AmeriFlora' 92 instead of Disney World. Free horticultural gifts on local game/talk shows would provide great visibility. How about installing a flower bed or container garden at the local T.V. station for the weather person? Occasional weather reports could be given right from the garden.

Getting children into gardening is the best way to expand future markets and may bring Mom and Dad to the garden store today.

A horticultural firm such as Park or Ball could catch the kids' (and grandma's) imagination by working with one of the big children's products companies to produce a Ken and Barbie TM or Cabbage Patch TM garden: a kit that includes a doll-sized pretend garden, a story book of how-to's, and seed tapes and other supplies to grow a real, 15 sq. ft. garden.

Osh-Kosh TM decks out tikes in overalls just like real gardeners - they could be encouraged to have a tiny-tot tool and garden kit that doubles as a lunch box. As they promote these products, they promote the horticulture industry and help raise new gardeners.

Right in your own back yard you can do a lot to help increase this type of endeavor by supporting your local Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardeners in their 4-H gardening projects.

Give them your end-of-the-season seed and plants, empty pots, and other supplies. Sponsor a "Great Garden" contest; give prizes for the biggest marigold or heaviest zucchini brought to the nursery. Kids will love it, Mom and Dad will discover your location, Master Gardeners will show their appreciation for your help by becoming loyal customers, and radio stations can announce your name and location in their free public service announcements about the event. Maybe you can even get them to do a remote broadcast from your garden center someday if the contest gets big enough.

Working with other industries and individuals to promote horticulture will become fun, easy, and profitable as we gain an understanding of why people garden and what they gain from it.