StandPoint, an Atlanta-based market research firm conducted a consumer panel during February 2010 in Tampa, Fla., to obtain insights on the buying patterns of consumers making retail plant purchases.
We recruited 12 consumers from the Tampa area to participate in this research project. Demographically, the panelists were quite diverse, with a range of age, income and gardening expertise. Each participant visited a local Home Depot and a Lowe’s to purchase plants and then had a one-on-one interview with moderator Kip Creel. Finally, a subset of the participants participated in a panel discussion at the 2010 Big Grower Executive Summit.
The details of the research gained from the consumer panel was enlightening, with several key findings on preferences in merchandising, buyer behavior, brand awareness and what’s hot right now.
Buyer Behavior: Where and How Often
In general, the panelists purchased plants two to three times per year. About half had purchased from a locally owned garden center but the most frequented channel was indeed the big box store.
When asked why they did not purchase plants more often, the predictable answer was “time.” American consumers tend to have larger lots and spend a lot of time on cutting grass and maintenance. As a result, money and time spent on flowers decreases, in comparison to European counterparts.
As mentioned before, few consumers knew the type of plant they wanted upon entering the store. However they did have a clear understanding of the plant’s intended function in the landscape: for a container, for a flower bed, along a walkway, around a mailbox, as a privacy screen, et cetera. The color and the texture of the plant often “sealed the deal,” while a lack of information or instructions was a common deal breaker. In many instances, panelists didn’t choose a plant if it lacked clear instructions, even if it met all other criteria.
Importance of Outdoor Displays
Products displayed outside the garden center are a powerful draw. Consumers expect and prefer the garden center to be “full” and “compact,” with lots of variety. The consumer panelists commented on the effectiveness of outdoor displays at Lowe’s that established a powerful first impression for the garden center. It is encouraging that consumers were not overwhelmed by this variety of offerings, and actually enjoyed the “sense of discovery” and ability to comparison shop. Few knew exactly what they wanted to purchase beforehand and made their selections right in the garden center.
This selection behavior differs from other product categories such as packaged foods where the “paradox of choice” can mean that consumers will delay a purchase because they are overwhelmed with the options. Since plants are a decorating item and a reflection of personal style, the shopper expects a wide variety of plant types, but not necessarily a wide variety within plant types.
Initial Impression, Lasting Effect
Shoppers’ initial impressions of the garden center at the beginning of the season has a strong impact on whether they’d come back at some point in the season. For this exercise, the Home Depot stores shopped looked better prepared, with more merchandise, wider variety and healthier plants. While Lowe’s received high marks on shopability, signage, retail standards, availability of information and ease of finding prices, customers were disappointed in the lack of merchandise. After visiting some of these stores, it was apparent that the Lowe’s stores were not yet fully stocked.
Packaging Sells the Plant
Because information on pots or plant tags is key to purchases, good retail standards are important to the shopper. For example, Lowe’s received high marks for attaching a descriptive label on the front of its pots. Each pot on the bench was arranged so that the label was easily accessible. This was not the case at Home Depot, where shoppers had to rotate the pots to read the information.
The way Lowe’s displays its pricing was also universally praised. Customers could see the pricing on a permanent sign near a grouping of plants, which they considered ideal. Most of the pots at Home Depot were individually priced and were not always customer facing, another source of irritation.
Lowe’s reliance on store signage gave the respondents the impression that the retailer was geared toward the novice gardener. The consensus for Home Depot is that it was better suited for shoppers who “know what they want” or were “more experienced.”
Color Drives Selection
Color preference was a strong purchase driver. Most were cognizant of trying to add “splashes of color” to a green landscape, while contrasting colors with the house or container. Color preference is strongly linked to personal style. Favorite colors are utilized both outdoors and indoors. As such, the industry should monitor color trends (as they do in the fashion and paint industries) to see how preferences may be skewing over time.
Turning to the Internet
Among this group, the overall gardening IQ, defined as basic knowledge about plants and how to care for them, was low. Many struggled with the definitions of annuals and perennials, hardiness zones, even the names of plants the industry would consider common.
Interestingly, consumers were not bothered by this lack of fundamental knowledge. They expect a high level of instructional detail to be included on a tag or on the pot. The panelists, regardless of age, were Internet savvy and confident in researching information for plant care.
Among this group, there was low readership of home and garden magazines, books and specific websites. All indicated that they would initiate an Internet search with Google. Search engine optimization will become an increasingly important strategy for the industry. All of the participants were regular users of Facebook and saw it as a medium that might influence a purchase, especially if a friend recommended a specific type of plant.
For this group, awareness of plant brands was nonexistent even after participants were quizzed on several popular brands: Proven Winners, Wave and Endless Summer. At the behest of store personnel, one panelist purchased an Encore azalea over a bougainvillea because “it was hardier.” The consumer was not aware, despite the information on the label, of Encore’s repeat blooming habit. When informed of this, the consumer found Encore’s blooming highly motivating and recommended that it be more prominently featured on the packaging.
A few panelists had purchased Burpee seeds and Jackson & Perkins roses. Both of these long-standing brands had no meaning to the consumer.
In general, branding had relevance if and when the consumer had success with the plant and needed a point of reference for repeat purchase. About half of the panelists save tags and/or labels and use it for this very purpose. Botanical names were not important.
And finally, the consumer panels revealed the following future trends:
New and unique. Consumers are attracted to the new and unusual. As such, tropicals, cacti and succulents were frequently selected.
Edibles. Vegetable and herb gardening are still of significant interest; it seems this trend has yet to peak. A weak economy, concerns about food safety, an increase in home cooking and an increased emphasis on healthy eating are all fueling popularity in this category.
Bold colors. Reds, oranges and purples are in high demand and are being used to decorate inside and outside.
Indoor plants. There appears to be a stronger interest than in years past.
Flowering shrubs and perennials. These are of increasing interest because they offer color and more permanence in the landscape. Consumers are also planting these items in containers. A thought leader in the home and garden industry, Kip Creel is president of StandPoint, an Atlanta-based market research firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .