Photo: Ken Blaze

SHIFT, an AmericanHort research initiative, studied more than 40 garden centers to determine why consumers shop for and buy plants, what they’re looking for and what they expect from retail experiences.

Rather than displaying findings in charts and graphs, AmericanHort offered 30 insights with specific suggestions on how to improve retail. One major recommendation was that retailers should consider focusing on what they are known for — plants. Plants should take center stage instead of the home décor, apparel, pet products and other categories retailers started offering to differentiate their businesses and combat seasonality.

People want plants for many reasons. How the industry sells, markets and displays plants needs to adapt to today’s consumers, the study suggested, and that doesn’t just mean Millennials. The entire supply chain needs to be involved. People aren’t necessarily going to garden centers for sun or shade plants. With the environmental realities of today, consumers are looking for specific solutions, like drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, pollinator-friendly, a specific color or a decorative container for the porch or patio.

“We have a language problem,” is how some involved with the study have put it, including Groovy Plant Ranch’s Jared Hughes, who was one of the panelists during a discussion at Cultivate’16 about implementing SHIFT ideas at retail. Mick Mulhall of Mulhall’s in Omaha, Neb., was also on the panel, and decided to boost succulent and cacti offerings after reading SHIFT research indicating that consumers were interested in the plants. It wasn’t just a “build it and they will come” strategy, though, and what he did could be applied to other plant categories. Focused marketing — including targeted Facebook ads and Instagram posts to reach the specific demographic interested in those plants, and in-store events, like the recent Cacti Show, which brought in rare plants and the growers behind them, plus tacos — have resulted in enormous growth in the category.

Despite all of the resources out there for new gardeners, the research also found that people need in-person help and aren’t just going online. Tom Hilgeman of White Oak Gardens in Cincinnati, Ohio, reports that their make-and-take workshops and in-store potting bar have been a hit. People can get the help and reassurance that they need, and leave the mess in-store. This month, we focus on consumers and how everyone — breeders, growers, landscapers and retailers — can make their plant-buying experience better. Find out more about the SHIFT research and the changes retailers have made to their stores here.

Michelle Simakis, Editor