Many plant buyers, at least in the Southeast, are more likely to buy annuals from a brick-and-mortar retailer than they are to buy them online. And while trees are also a hard sell for ecommerce, customers appear more likely to consider purchasing shrubbery and foliage online.
This is what Young’s Plant Farm, a wholesale grower based out of Auburn, Alabama, has found based on market research it conducted with the help of TRINDGROUP, an Auburn-based marketing agency. The agency received the highest honor in the 2018 Public Relations Council of Alabama (PRCA) Medallion Awards competition for conducting the research.
“People responded that they would consider buying plants online,” says Chris Montgomery, senior account executive at Young’s Plant Farm, who worked on the project with Penny Merritt-Price, the company’s research and development coordinator. “But the one thing that came up repeatedly was that their perception of buying plants online is that for giving up the ability to touch and to see the plant, they thought that they should pay a lower price than they would in a brick and mortar store.”
Young’s Plant Farm has three locations — two in Auburn and one in Andrews, North Carolina. Its growing space includes about 42 acres undercover and 30 acres outdoors, Merritt-Price says. The operation grows about 95 percent annuals and 5 percent perennials, Montgomery says.
The operation grows entirely for wholesale to two big-box store chains that have locations in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle, and it commissioned the research for those customers. “Today, in this age of retail, things are changing so fast, [regarding] what influences buying patterns,” Montgomery says. “You hear a lot about the different age groups, whether it be Gen X, Millennials and what exactly their perception [is] of garden center chains.”
Meeting the gardener
To narrow down its search to people who were in the market for purchasing plants, TRINDGROUP reached out to end consumers in Alabama and Georgia through Facebook, using keywords such as “gardening” and “flowers,” Montgomery says. The agency asked people who responded to fill out questionnaires with demographic information such as age, gender and income.
“We tried to pull pretty dynamic groups that were not just necessarily what we would consider our primary customer, but a broad scope of people that would be giving us input and information,” Montgomery says. From there, TRINDGROUP gathered 30 people for three focus groups, each with 10 people, who it invited to its annual Trial Garden Open House in June 2017.
Most years, professionals from the horticulture industry attend the Trial Garden Open House, but in 2017, Young’s Plant Farm also invited anyone participating in the focus groups to come. At the event, it offered participants tours of its trial gardens and greenhouses, which the visitors said they enjoyed.
TRINDGROUP and Young’s Plant Farm let discussions in the focus groups flow organically, Montgomery says. “Our goal was really not to go into these focus groups and ask a lot of questions,” he says. “It was more to guide a discussion, start a conversation and listen to what the people were saying and to, if anything, just guide that conversation so that it remained on topic. [TRINDGROUP] were the ones that put together the strategy for doing that. Then, they are the ones who analyzed the notes and the video recordings from the discussion groups and provided us with the results.”
Measuring the value of a plant
In addition to the customers’ desire to pick out a plant for themselves, one of the main points that came up was the perishability of many plants, such as annuals, Montgomery says. Another point was the question of returning live goods. “If it’s a hard good, then if somebody receives it and maybe it doesn’t fit or it’s defective, it’s very easy to identify that,” he says. “If somebody gets a flower that they just don’t like, how do they quantify that, and how do they return the product at that point, and what’s their reasoning for returning it?”
Montgomery says he predicts that online plant sales are less likely to affect annual sales in the short-term than they are to affect shrub, foliage, specialty plant and holiday crop sales. Some retailers currently offer options for customers to order online and pick up at the store. Montgomery foresees this option becoming more popular before home deliveries do.
In general, Young’s Plant Farm noticed a few consumer preferences regarding retail plant sales. “The very basic consumer perceptions with what people were looking for in the garden centers [were] quality, the health of the plant, the size of the plant,” Montgomery says. “That took precedent over convenience and retail price. Retail price was actually second. We had felt that for years — grow a great-looking plant and that’s what’s going to sell. I’m sure there’s an upper limit of what retail price can be, but it’s not the consumer’s primary concern when they’re shopping.”
Growers in the Southeast will need to keep an eye on ecommerce, but based on the research, it isn’t likely to disrupt plant sales for now the way it has turned other markets on their head — at least not for now. “I don’t know that online sales are going to eclipse brick-and-mortar sales on plants anytime soon,” Montgomery says. “I think that as the years go on, it will become a larger and larger part of the market, especially as people get more attuned to buying other things in their lives online. As more things go in that direction, it’s probably going to open up people’s perception of how to shop for plants online. We will definitely be continuing to look at that well into the future.”