Monday, June 6, 2011

Behind The Veil: A Look Inside the Nursery Business

I recently wrote an article for the SF Chronicle, on working inside the retail nursery business. Due to space limitations, only one part of that feature piece made it into print. Here is the complete article, as originally written, which gives a fuller account of the interesting world that is the business of selling plants.

Behind the Veil: A Look inside the Nursery Business
“Oh, I’d love to work in a nursery!” As a Bay Area nurseryman, I get that comment from gardeners on occasion and my thought, if not actually spoken, is “If only you really knew.” The retail nursery business is a far more curious business than most people outside of it could imagine. This article peels back the curtain, examines with an eye that is both realistic and bemused the weekly and monthly cycles of a neighborhood nursery.
The first truth about the nursery business that surprises many customers is that plants are big business. Nursery and garden center sales account for nearly $40 billion worth of annual sales at nurseries and plant centers. That includes all the non-plant sales, such as pottery & baskets, plant stands, soil products, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, irrigation supplies, statuary, all the way down the line to wind chimes and bug zappers. Now imagine that a nursery is a grocery store for plants and garden supplies. As with a grocery store, retail garden centers have limited space and that necessitates a dizzying array of purchasing decisions.
Agribusiness model
These decisions are often the most interesting when it comes to the plants themselves. To the average gardener walking into a nursery like ours, Grand Lake Ace Garden Center in Oakland, the plants are just ‘there.’ Yes, someone had to have ordered them, but it isn’t until they visit a much larger commercial garden center, say Home Depot or CVS, that an observant shopper sees a dramatically different selection of plants. For many of these adjunct garden centers, plants are simply another product and the goal is to buy large quantities of a limited selection, sell them cheaply and move on to buying more product. They buy from a limited number of vendors and because of the sales volume involved there is tremendous competition among growers to be selected as one of these businesses’ approved vendors.
If there was ever any doubt as to the big business side of the gardening world, one only need look at one of the industry’s biggest growers, Proven Winners. This is the agribusiness model of plant production, where acres of greenhouses and sophisticated, automated systems mass produce trademarked plants for the market. Yes, Proven Winners trademarks plants much in the same way as Monsanto trademarks certain grains they’ve developed. This means that retail nurseries must buy these particular varieties from Proven Winners and no one else. Proven Winners does a very effective job of marketing their plants, using full page ads in gardening magazines to feature their plants. “One thing I find curious about these ads,” horticulturist and nursery managerTom Nelson says “ is that Proven Winners has largely stopped using the botanical terms for these plants, using instead only the common names – say Fan Flower for scaevola -- and their trademarked variety name.” Thus, Fan Flower ‘New Wonder’ TM.” Clearly Proven Winners is targeting these ads at the weekend gardener, trying to establish branding for their particular product.
Neighborhood Nurseries
Grand Lake Ace nursery is, by contrast, a low-fi business, reflecting the neighborhood it serves. Our buyers tend to look for the ideal balance between variety and saleability. Though we’re known for carrying an impressive breadth of plants, especially perennials and shrubs, we can’t afford the luxury of buying plants that we think are cool but don’t sell. Like supermarket produce buyers, there is no returning plants to the growers. Complicating this scenario, nursery buyers must order certain groups of plants, including roses, fruit trees and rhododendrons, four to six months ahead of delivery! Hey, has anyone seen my crystal ball?
We also share another dilemma of small-sized nurseries. There are only so many plants we can shoehorn into our outdoor area and that becomes a significant buying factor as well. That limitation notwithstanding, Grand Lake and other neighborhood nurseries use a homegrown formula for buying: equal parts what’s sold in the past, what’s new and interesting and what’s creating buzz in the gardening world. It’s truly amazing what the mention of a certain plant in a high profile magazine article or on a TV show can do to drive people to seek it out.
The Plant Desirability Koan
And that begs the real 64 million dollar question, why is a plant popular? The question may sound simplistic and perhaps unanswerable but on the contrary, it’s a complex and answerable koan, one that gets to the very heart of the massive plant industry. Because we as gardeners don’t need plants in the way that we need food or shelter, we must be enticed to buy them. And that is the simple goal of the growers, of the plant shops and of intermediaries such as marketers and the media they have a symbiotic relationship with. They seek to enchant us and to portray plants as symbols of beauty, refinement, even status. Even the humblest garden says something about its owner and given how much time, effort and money we invest in our gardens, plants have acquired an elevated significance in many people’s lives.
The typical Grand Lake customer gives thought to what she purchases, reads magazines, notices neighbors’ gardens, perhaps goes on garden tours. Meaning they want their garden to look a certain way. This is garden as personal statement and whatever else a plant does, it needs to fit into this general scheme. I call this element “visual appeal.” But a plant’s no good to a gardener if it doesn’t perform well, especially within the micro-climate of its intended destination. Certain groups of plants are popular, bucking trends, because they’re tough, durable and anchor garden designs.
Black & Blue
And as any landscaper will tell you, one aspect of a plant, such as the color of its foliage, can drive a plant’s popularity. Louis Armstrong could have been talking about this element with his song “Black & Blue.” Dark-leaved plants will always be popular for the contrast they provide and as soon as a new one comes on the market, such as was the case with Euphorbia ‘Blackbird,’ it becomes a must have for many gardeners. Blue tones also drive up a plant’s desirability. Witness the popularity of blue hostas, blue grasses such as blue fescue and blue oat grass and any plant with a blue flower. There’s no more telling sign of the hypnotic allure of the color blue than the fact that growers use some form of blue in the description of hundreds of flowers, when in fact only a tiny percentage of them are actually a true blue color.
Then again if a new plant gets enough press, people will march into nurseries and demand it, even it doesn’t exactly fit into their design scheme. Whenever a customer brings in a garden photo from a glossy magazine and more or less says “I’d like this garden,” I always feel like pulling out my ‘Your Results May Vary’ button. In short, the decision of which plant to buy is often more multi-layered than even the customer herself may realize and all of that is factored into which plants are grown to begin with, who carries them and whether they get ordered once in a blue moon or on a regular basis.
And I’ve left out one very important factor in a customer’s buying decision – what the nursery they’re frequenting actually displays. People may have an idea of what they’re going to buy as they walk in our nursery but as I soon discovered, even the most resolute shopper is prone to impulse buys if they see something that delights them. Does the phrase “I’ll find a place for it” mean anything to you as a gardener? And this is where the displaying of plants can influence buyers. At Ace, we use our center aisle to create special designs on the end caps. Cottage Growers in Petaluma features attractive layouts of their plants and Flora Grubb in San Francisco takes plant design to a new level. These “mini-gardens” show gardeners possibilities, showcasing plants in natural settings. And it works!
Pulling Back the Curtain
Back to my customer’s original innocent comment about the joy of working with plants. Yes, it can be fun and rewarding, especially if you love plants. Pulling back that veil, however, reveals something a lot less glamorous. To begin with, during the warmer months we often spend up to half the day watering. Have you always fancied spending hours tugging hoses up and down cement aisles watering thousands of six packs and four inch pots? Then nursery work is for you!! Do you have fond dreams of spending hours unloading heavy plants from trucks, then getting on your knees to staple price labels to these plants? In the rain? Does the proverbial prison yard job of moving piles of rocks from one spot to another and then back again give you a special tingle? Why commit a felony for the privilege? A big part of a nurseryman’s work is to move hundreds of plants from one location to another, making space for hundreds of new plants. This fulfilling job will be repeated in another week or month when another large shipment arrives.
The nursery business is all about cycles; seasonal cycles for the plants themselves of course but also natural rhythms in the business of keeping a nursery on track. Spring is the Christmas season for nurseries. A bad spring, most notably because of rainy weather like we had in 2010, can cause serious economic distress to a nursery. Some nurseries will make almost as much money in the four months of a good spring as they do the rest of the year. As a nurseryman I both look forward to spring and dread it. Spring weekends bring a crush of customers and inevitably we nurserymen are exhausted at the end of these days. Late summer is slow – admit it, how much time are you spending in your garden during July & August? – then it begins to pick up in mid-September. Coastal nurseries have the great advantage of serving customers who may work in their garden nearly year round. By mid-February, we’re already seeing the ‘early birds’ and lately, with the great uptick in urban vegetable gardening, people begin streaming in about this time to buy vegetable starts.
But here’s one thing I really like about the nursery business, at least working at Grand Lake: the customers. We really do reflect the neighborhood, attracting a diverse mix of people. Different ages, ethnicities, income brackets, lifestyles. That’s the wonderful thing about gardening; it has a tendency to level the playing field and unite people. And really that’s one way of looking at the power of plants. They have a way of worming their way into nearly every heart.
It’s the People, people.
Grand Lake Ace has wonderful customers and yet, like any retail business, it has a few idiosyncratic shoppers. Here are ten of the most interesting classic shoppers that frequent our nursery.
#10. The ‘Five minutes before we close’ shopper. We’re pulling racks in, practically locking the gate to the outdoor nursery and people will still come in, looking for “just one plant.” Of course, they don’t know what that plant is …
#9. The ‘Whatever you think’ customer. Bless their hearts, these gardeners want our advice on which plants will look good in a spot in their garden, we help them and they’re eternally grateful. Mind you, once in awhile we get one of these “whatever” customers who don’t agree with our suggestions, which begs the question of why they’re asking our opinion to begin with.
#8. The ‘Collectors.’ These are some of my favorite customers (maybe because I’m one myself). They know what they want (and don’t want) and will ask you with that glint in their eye “What’s new?” Ace gets its share of these types because we carry an amazing variety of plants.
#7. The ‘Oh, did I come in to buy plants?’ customer. This is the chatty customer who seems to have misplaced the notion that they came in to, you know, buy plants.
#6. The ‘Aren’t you my personal landscaper?’ customer. These people are rare but each of us nurserymen has helped customers who announce something like “I have half an acre, what should I plant there?” Umm, you have what? These people actually expect you to come up with an entire landscape plan for them, then pick out all the plants and then when you’ve spent an hour showing them some of the plants, announce “Oh, that’s way too much money. I guess I’ll go buy them at Home Depot.”
#5. The ‘Specialists.’ These gardeners have a fondness for a particular category of plants, such as succulents, South African plants or tropical plants. I swear, they must have set up surveillance because not long after the truck rolls in they’re there like pigs sniffing out the latest tasty truffles. We love ‘em!
#4. The ‘Planners.’ Another one of our favorites. These people know what they’re doing, come in with a blueprint and ask you to help them find things. They actual listen to your input, know enough about plants to be open to substitutions and appreciate your help. Then they buy the plants (see #6).
#3. The ‘No, not that plant’ customers. I always swore that if I ever wrote a book about the retail nursery business, this is what I’d title it. This customer has a plant in mind but doesn’t know its name, can’t describe it very well, thus leading us to suggest possibilities. Each suggestion is followed by some version of “No, not that plant” implying that we really don’t know anything about plants or we would have been able to extrapolate from their vague description. Why do these people always show up right before lunch time when my blood sugar is already low and as Elton John once opined in a song “I can’t think straight no more.”
#2. The ‘Can I Ask you a Question? (phone call division)’ customer. This call typically starts out with “Do you have this plant, how many do you have, what do they cost?” but then doesn’t end there. More plant inquiries follow or a detailed questioning of what the plant’s needs are and on and on. I’m tempted to say “Have you heard of this thing called the internet? Fascinating resource!”
And the #1 iconic customer. The ‘My pants are on fire and I have too much money on me’ customer. Okay, just kidding, but this most welcome type is on a mission. She or he grabs a cart, makes a beeline for plants she’s already decided she needs, makes spontaneous decisions to add intriguing surprises, talks to no one (other than maybe to say a friendly hi), fills up the cart and heads to the checkout. Certain of our landscaper friends fall into this group but there are regular gardeners who also have it straight what they want and limited time to get in and out. Gold stars all around!

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