Inside the Box — Walking in the Consumer’s Shoes By Dean Chaloupka

One of the things that always intrigues me is that as an industry, we are looking to transform ourselves from growers and suppliers into consumer goods companies with an emphasis on "consumer." As someone who has been in horticulture for more than 25 years, I feel all too often we don't view things from the eyes of the consumer. In addition, the large national retailers that are supplied by growers rely on these same growers for information and inspiration on how best to serve the women, men and families looking to decorate their homes.

During the spring of 2011, I spent time each week during the eight peak weeks of the spring in the Midwest walking retail garden centers at the major retailers. Each time, I went unidentified as a person from within the horticulture industry and tried as much as possible to put aside any bias and to view the experience as a typical consumer would.

Customer Service
The home improvement retailers are making strides in a positive way. Each has made a concerted effort to greet and engage customers in the stores and in the garden center. Without fail, when just wandering around, store personnel in the home improvement stores asked if I was finding the things I wanted. Could I be helped?

In the mass merchants with garden centers or parking lot programs, what could be expected and was found is an uninspired cashier. There was no one to ask for help, and forget about anyone in these stores asking if you needed help. They need to take it to the next level and not only point or take you to where the product is but provide specialists within the garden center who actually know something about the product. Just looking at the tag as many consumers do is not particularly helpful.

There is hope though, and if you want to know of the best experience I had over the eight-week period, I'll share it at the end. There are definite lessons to be learned.

Product Quality
The vast majority of all plant products looked great and just like the pictures in the advertisements or on the website when using QR codes and my Smartphone. Price signs were well done and plants were in full color.

As the season goes on, though, every retailer must assume that consumers like some brown plants that are distressed because you continue to stock them. Is even 5 to 10 percent of retail space dedicated to this acceptable? Is the space that cheap? Never once did I see a person buy one. Consumers moved them, they commented on them, they walked away from them but in all my store visits, they never bought one!

Brand Awareness
Brands have their greatest presence within the "premium" plant category with container sizes ranging between 4 inch and 1 gallon as well as some hanging baskets. There also are more store or retailer brands competing with distributor or breeder brands and almost no grower brands.

Of most interest and no surprise is the lack of any price discipline on grower/breeder brands between the retailers. The retailers use these brands for their recognition but have no problem devaluing them with price wars. This was evident with 1-quart Proven Winners, which could be found at advertised prices between $4.98 and $2.50. Five-inch or 6-inch Wave petunias could be found from $4.98 to $2.77. To assume this will change is wishful thinking in a world where consumers are now trained to use QR codes and "apps" to comparison shop before and while at the stores. This new technology will mean a quick trip to the lowest price unless discipline within market placement is considered.

Hardiness Zones
Ok, this one comes with some industry bias, but why do we still put zone hardiness on tags? Do we think there is a huge number of consumers who walk into a garden center that live in a different hardiness zone? Are there a bunch of Zone 5 consumers walking into a garden center in Zone 3? This is a relic of the time when a majority of consumers purchased seeds or plants through catalogs and had product shipped to them.

Think about it this way, as a consumer do you think I actually know what zone hardiness means or what zone I am actually in?

Continued interviews with consumers and in panel discussions with those consumers who shop in a large retail setting, say they do not know what zone they are in, don't know what the zone chart information means.

As a consumer, shouldn't I assume that whatever is in the garden center I shop in is winter hardy if it is a tree, shrub, or perennial? Shouldn't it be that simple if you want me to be successful and buy more? Why should I have to guess?

Why don't we just put "Will Survive Winter in this Market — Yes" or "Will Survive Winter in the Market — No" on the tags? Isn't that ultimately what we want customers to understand?

Best Experience of the Spring
Why was it the best?

I was greeted as I entered with a chant that it is now "Show Time" and every other customer was too. I was called sir and always treated as if I was important and that they were glad I chose them to spend my money there.

I watched staff, who in my estimation were 18 to 25 years old, who were trained and worked with enthusiasm and professionalism.

I was approached to possibly purchase more. They did try to "upsell" or "sell add-on" products. I am never offended by this and don't we all hope the stores we service and work with would be motivated enough every day to do this. When they did this, they didn't just make the offer, they showed they understood my potential need and how what they recommended was a solution.

So Where Was I?
It was getting the oil changed in my car at Uncle Ed's Oil Change Shop in Portage, Mich. The experience was in the middle of one of my trips and I just pulled off to get my oil changed. I was pleasantly shocked at how I was treated, how the staff worked, and wondered what would happen if only we could get the garden centers at retailers to generate the excitement I felt that afternoon. There are oil change shops on almost every corner in this country but this group has figured out a way to separate themselves from everyone else. I'm sure the oil they used or the filter I got was no different than I could have gotten across the street, and yes I paid a little more but I know I felt much better after having been to their shop.

What difference can the experience make in a customer's eyes? I spent time telling you about an oil change, didn't I?

Dean Chaloupka

Dean Chaloupka is part of Visions Group LLC, a solutions group providing marketing, management and production assistance to the green industry. He can be reached at

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