Surveying the Big Boxes’ Spring Seasons By David Edenfield

"Survey saysÉ" The famous line from Family Feud has been in our cultural vocabulary since it was first spoken in the mid-1970s. Now let's bring the phrase back: Survey saysÉit has been an average spring from a national perspective.

Throughout the selling season, I make personal visits and do phone surveys in every major big box market to gauge how the season is going. Here's what I found.

How did the tight economy affect sales?

Survey saysÉ It appears that the tight economy had little or no effect on the total dollars or units sold. Weather in 2008 was a much bigger factor. With the exception of the Northeast, Southeast, and Southern California, early garden center purchases were very soft.

Some interesting trends and observations: Demand for pack products and 4-inch material was up. It appears that consumers perceived them to be a better value than in the past — four or six plants for $1.97 versus a 6-inch for $3.97. Vegetable and herb sales were also up dramatically. In much of the country, Mother's Day was a washout. As we know, Mother's Day sales are impulse driven. The problem was that the weather was so bad that the big box retailers were missing their customers as well as the impulse sales. You never recapture sales lost at Mother's Day. Memorial Day weekend was much better — but not quite good enough.

What was the demand for decorative containers and baskets?

Survey saysÉ The demand was as good, if not better, than it was in past seasons. Home Depot and Lowe's did an excellent job of selecting containers that were grown and offered to consumers. There were some interesting trends related to retail price. There was a definite resistance to buy when containers were $40 or more, whereas in the past, that resistance seemed to be on containers priced at $50 or more. The fast movers were promotionally priced at $9.97 to $12.97. I also saw excellent sales with containers priced in the $21.97 to $29.97 range.

One grower suggested that consumers were much more selective this year. Comments included, "The price was not as important as the look of the container" or "It really needed to be perceived as a great value for the price."

Did the big box retailers provide more service?

Survey saysÉ While both Home Depot and Lowe's promised to put more employees back on the floor, reports suggest they weren't in the garden department. The big boxes struggled to process the large volume of customers that were trying to check out at the registers during a condensed season. Lines were very long, and customers waited a long time, even in stores with multiple registers operating. It felt like the stores had reached a point where they physically could not process any additional customers.

Despite this, I have never seen these garden centers look better. The credit for that goes to growers and merchandisers from the various suppliers.

How did the new "eco" products do?

Survey saysÉ It's important to note that there weren't a lot of choices. What I saw was limited to the PotLess Plant program from Ball Horticulture and the Straw Pot from Ivy Acres. Several growers were offering products produced in a rice hullÐtype pot. All were offered in limited quantities, and the message that it was an eco-friendly bedding plant escaped the majority of consumers.

Did consumers notice that retail prices increased?

Survey saysÉ No! Prices were up across the country this year — as they were in 2007 — but our observations suggest the higher retails did not slow down consumer purchasing.

So is there room for retails to go up even more? I think there isÉif the product's different enough or there is a very clear value difference the consumer can relate to. The real answer may lie in what a gallon of gasoline will cost in relationship to that beautiful hanging basket.

David Edenfield

David Edenfield is president of Visions Group LLC. He can be reached at dave@visionsgroupllc.com or (440) 310-2458.



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