And the Winner is… By Carrie Burns

This year's winner solves the number-one consumer problem, while answering some other desired questions.

I know it’s difficult for you to imagine being in consumers’shoes as they wander through the garden center, but just try it — try seeingthings through their eyes: “I like the color of that plant …I wonderwhat it is…it would look really great on my porch…I’m buying it.” Whatshe didn’t know was that the plant she selected needed full sun and her porchhas an awning that only allows four hours of sun to reach it.

It’s the simplest idea for you — you know that sun or lackthereof and proper regions are very important, and you know what plants workbest where, but consumers don’t. And this seems to be a pretty big problem. ButNovalis Inc. has found a way to solve that problem in a clear andunderstandable way in its Plants That Work (PTW) program, and this is why weare naming them the GPN/MasterTag 2003 Marketing Innovation Award winner.

Some Background

First you should know who Novalis is — a team of fournursery professionals based on or near the East Coast, Carolina Nurseries,Moncks Corner, S.C.; Conard-Pyle Nurseries, West Grove, Pa.; ImperialNurseries, Granby, Conn.; and Willoway Nurseries, Avon, Ohio, working togetherto bring exceptional plants to the market. Novalis, derived from the Latin wordmeaning to cultivate, which is what the company prides itself in.

The PTW program was first introduced in 2001 as a program toenable the consumer to pick up a plant, knowing right away where she can plantit in her garden or around her home. The line of plants is divided into shadeor sun plants and is clearly displayed as such with colorful POP. Tworetail-ready racks, which together hold 160 “six packs” (80 shade and80 sun), are supplied to the garden center. Pot sleeves — with bright, clearphotos and understandable care information — and handles are able to becustomized with the garden center’s name, logo and Web site.

Novalis conducted research to determine its POP components.”In many cases, companies provide signs, and they can’t get the busyworkers to put the signs with the product. We were looking at studies from KipCreel [of NQuery] that said products on fixtures were selling faster thanproducts on the floor; with signs on the fixtures, the turns increased evenmore,” said J. “That led us to believe that if we could put our POPon our fixtures, they couldn’t lose it. It would be all tied together and ourproduct would fit on there.”

Let There Be Light Or Shade

Though Linda Guy, director of new product development atCarolina Nurseries and Novalis, and J.’s wife, had this idea in her head foryears, it finally took off in 2001 with a lot of planning and hard work.”We spent quite a bit of time with market studies to help us reallyunderstand what the consumer does want and need,” she said.

While in the beginning stages, the program was just carriedby Carolina Nurseries and included strictly perennials. “It was just aprogram we were running some perennials in, and now we’re seeing what I callthe gray areas,” says J., “where everything is washing together,where what’s in bloom sells, and we’re mixing perennials with annuals.”And now the other three Novalis growers are contributing, which is necessarysince the program has grown in customers from 30 independent garden centers tomore than 250 in just three years. “This year, we are in over 250, andthat’s pretty much in the footprint of the East Coast–Chicago, Tennessee RiverValley, Atlanta up through Connecticut. On this side of the Mississippi, we’retouching just over 250 nurseries,” said J.

The colors chosen for the POP only makes sense — green forshade and yellow for sun. “We’re just trying to go back to simplemarketing. As growers, we make it too hard for the consumer, and they weresaying can’t you just do the simple ABC,” says J. “So, we pretty muchsaid those were the colors. We never thought blue or brown.”

And, the name? None other than horticultural guru Dr. AllenArmitage from University of Georgia, who was helping out with a differentperennial project, came up with the name after a long, grueling meeting betweenLinda, J. and Allen. “I hated it [at first],” said J. “But someof the best ideas don’t start off as good ideas.”

Not Just Sun or Shade

While the issue of sun or shade alone might have won Novalisthe 2003 Marketing Innovation Award, the program actually answers some otherimportant consumer questions. “What we might call a perennial [inCarolina], Tom Demaline at Willoway Nursery in Ohio might call it anannual,” said Linda. “So, there is a really confusing message goingout to the consumer.” As PTW expands to other regions of the UnitedStates, zone- and area-specific plant material will be more readily available.

Linda intentionally designed the PTW program broad toinclude plant materials from Zones 4-9. It is then broken down to what works indifferent sales regions. “You see plant material, and well-grown plantmaterial, from all over the country, but there hasn’t been a lot ofresponsibility taken for putting it in the right areas,” Linda says.”So the end result is success all around. And, you know, that’s the onlyway we’re going to build great gardeners — providing [gardeners] with thetools to make them successful.”

Garden Center Reactions

Nervousness is always lurking when introducing a new programto the industry. There are skeptics out there, which can actually make yourproduct even better. PTW was no exception. “Some didn’t like it (theidea); some loved it,” said J. “There are early adapters and thelatecomers.” So, if possible, meet them somewhere in the middle.”Some customers said the big rack didn’t fit in their stores, and we cameup with a smaller half rack for smaller stores or wall areas.” Pleasingthe customer is always a good idea. Á

Since good ideas don’t always sell plants, we asked twogarden centers how the program is working for them. “People generally likethem [the perennials in the program] a lot. They have some neat varieties, somethat were a little out of the norm, and there were some pretty good deals. Forexample, [PTW’s] quart gingers sold for $4.99, and our gallon gingers werealmost $20 a piece,” said Cheryl Aldrich, assistant manager at HabershamGardens, Atlanta, Ga. “And, we were real impressed with the quality.”

“The plants are so good (high quality) that they almostsell themselves,” says Heike Franzen, perennial buyer at Hicks Nurseries,Westbury, N.Y. “The program is easy for people who have no knowledge aboutperennials at all. The program is really good, but I would recommend it morefor smaller garden centers, maybe in the $1 million per year range.” Injust the perennial market alone, Hick’s does more than $1 million, and smallergarden centers will have a little more time and help to restock the fixturesand/or shelves.


“There are no limitations,” says Linda. She ishoping that someday PTW will make it out West, but it will come with a lot ofwork. “As we move out that way, I’m going to have to work closer withpeople from those areas to understand their specific needs, just like we aredoing further north.”

There are also no limitations in the type of materialcarried by the program. “We do some what I call ‘softies’ and we alsoinclude flowering shrubs,” says J. “I know Tom [Demaline] has somespireas and weigelas for foliage color and texture. We are also looking forblooms of the season, so we’re installing some roses. So Plants That Work isbroadening out.”

Marketing Advice

While you probably don’t want to admit it, you’ve foundyourself looking at your competitors and thinking of ways you could make theirprograms yours but make them even better. Use some of that strategy. You cantake a few good ideas or successful pieces and implement them into your ownmarketing program or strategy. “Your Á competition forces you to goout and do something. We all do that as growers — look at what the other guyis doing — and it makes you do what I call ‘play up,'” said J. “Wesaw some successful programs, and I guess we were envious, and it motivated usto try and do something better.”

You can’t really market a poor product well. Linda’s adviceis, “Grow the very best product possible for whatever marketing schemethat might be. Provide as much information as possible — not just what zonethe plant is comfortable in or whether it’s sun or shade, but what othercompanion plants work well with these plants, how to use them, what form theyare when they mature, because it’s very hard to look at something in a pot atretail and know.”

Congratulations Novalis from GPN and MasterTag on being the2003 Marketing Innovation Award winner.

Carrie Burns

Carrie Burns is associate editor of GPN. She may be reached by phone at (847) 391-1019 or E-mail at

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