Many customers expect to see floral out front when spring hits

Many customers expect to see floral out front when spring hits.

Spring Gardening Starts Early for Retailers

Bedding plants merchandised out front can mean valuable benefits, but lots of work, retailers say

Retailers, often depending on where they’re located, expressed differing views on carrying bedding plants [4].

Ironically, some retailers in areas where there’s still snow on the ground are going out of their way to brighten up the front of the store with whatever plants will withstand a chilly day. If necessary, they’ll roll the racks in at night, and put them back out the next morning.

“It’s snowing here right now, but we have pansy plants on a single rack out front,” Steven Day, CFO and co-owner of Day’s Market, Heber, Utah, told SN.

“We do have a canopy out there so they’re somewhat protected, and if we find out the temperature is going to drop below freezing, we’ll roll the rack inside for the night.”

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, where there’s still snow on the ground, Brigido’s Fresh Market, based in North Scituate, already has some pansies, too, and bulb plants, but floral manager Donna Lally makes sure they’re protected from the elements.

“It’s on the early side for us. All I’m putting outside right now are bulb plants, hyacinths, tulips … they’re 4 feet off the ground on a rack,” Lally said. “That’s at the two stores with overhangs, and we have a bunch of garage doors.” Lined up, they provide a wind barrier to keep the plants protected.

Lally said it’s important to have colorful plants out front as early as possible, because people expect them.

“It’s an aesthetic thing. I think they ‘flavor’ the store. Those beautiful, living things make a good image for us. And, if they’re well taken care of, they bring in a profit.”

SN blog: Floral, Fresh Are Venturing Off the Beaten Path [5]

The front of Brigido’s stores all will blossom later with a large selection of flowering plants.

“We’ll be getting annuals, and a lot of vegetable plants, but not until after Mother’s Day. It’s just still too cold for them,” Lally said.

No matter where in the country they’re located, all the retailers SN talked to agreed that bedding plants require constant care, and that can be a problem. They have to be watered one or two or three times a day, and the buyer has to know what will hold up and what won’t. For that reason, one person generally is designated as caretaker.

At Day’s, in Utah’s mountains, when planting season finally arrives, Steven Day hires a manager on a temporary basis for the bedding plants.

“The biggest challenge is keeping the plants healthy, and that means protecting them from cold, heat, wind, and watering them at least twice a day. It’s possible, too, to overwater some plants, so the manager has to have experience. They also do the ordering, and they know variety and color are key.”

There’s extra incentive as well for the plant caretaker to do a good job.

“At the end, if we’ve had a successful season, the manager gets a bonus,” Day said.

Day’s is one of the supermarkets that makes a big thing of bedding plants, and it works. Sales have continued to grow over the last 10 years, Day said. And last year, when a Wal-Mart [6] moved next door — with a selection of plants — Day’s bedding plant sales didn’t falter. Indeed, sales were up from a year earlier.

“We had way more variety, and our quality is better,” Day explained.

Proper care

Good care is a must, but it can be a huge problem for a retailer. The floral department has to have an associate it can rely on to remember to water the plants, said floral consultant Terry Johnson, principal at Horticultural Marketing Resource, Mission Viejo, Calif.

“One day of not watering a plant can kill its roots. So, missing a day can result in a bunch of dead roots. The plant may still look OK, so the worst is that the customer buys them, takes them home, and when they don’t grow, he’s going to blame the supermarket.”

In the warmer regions of the country, erratic temperatures are less of a problem.

“We started two weeks ago and we’ll go through Mother’s Day,” said Bradley Gaines, floral supervisor, at 50-unit United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas.

“We pitch them really hard, and even though it’s a tad early, we try to be the first ones out there with bedding plants.”

Gaines’s theory is that once the weather starts warming up, people expect to see live, green plants
outside.

“We ordered a wider variety this year, and bought a lot more from Texas. One of our biggest sellers is herbs, and this is the first year 100% of them are local,” Gaines said. “Last year, 80% of our herbs came from California.”

Read more: Year-Round Floral Sales [7]

Local is big in Texas, so each plant variety is designated with signage that says, “Texas Grown.”

Inside, signs guide customers outside to the plants.

In the floral department, a sign may read, “Did you miss our lavender or mint out front?”

It would be difficult, however, at United’s stores for a customer to miss the bedding plants because they’re on a low profile rack smack in front of the entrance, Gaines said. A customer has to walk around the rack to come into the store.

While the weather is still apt to get pretty cold, Gaines focuses on just a few varieties that hold up well such as ivy just to have some green outside.

“This Saturday and Sunday the weather is predicted to go below freezing. We will roll them in.”

Gaines said he doesn’t focus on vegetables even though he’ll have tomato plants in soon. The market is flooded with vegetable plants, he said.

“Lowe’s has 100 varieties. It’s difficult to compete with those stores.”

The plants Gaines buys have well-developed roots so they’re not so vulnerable. It cuts down on their maintenance.

“We also get the store directors involved in their care, and we talk about the plants at regional meetings. We focus on them because they’re good for our fresh image,” Gaines said.

“We have some ‘hot buys’ like asparagus ferns that we get in and then out quickly with a great price.”

Gaines said sales of the category are marginally ahead of this time last year. Usually, he said, during the bedding plant season, those plants make up 5% to 8% of floral sales at United.

“I think there’s a good future for the category as long as you’re doing something different with it.”

Vegetable-Minded

In Louisiana, it’s heat that’s the big threat to fledgling plants. For that reason, Rouses Supermarkets [8], Thibodaux, displays them in shaded areas, hires trained florists and buys plants in 4-inch pots so the roots are better protected by ample soil.

Rouses puts its focus on vegetable plants, proven customer favorites.

“Particularly Creole tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers, and this year, we added yellow, straight-necked squash,” said Susan Sistrunk, the floral director.

Creole tomatoes, revered by Rouses’ customers, are an heirloom variety developed by Louisiana State University to withstand high heat and humidity.

“It [the Creole tomato] is said be so great-flavored … because it’s grown in the rich delta soil of the Mississippi River,” Sistrunk said.

K-VA-T [9]’s Food City in Louisa, Ky., in an area usually warm by this time of year, just got its bedding plants delivered last week, later than usual.

“We’ve had a cold snap here. It’s 28 degrees,” said Debbie Burke, the store’s floral manager.

Read more: Plant Sales Mixed at Retail [10]

Last year, Burke kept selling out of cabbage plants and rosebush plants even though she got weekly deliveries, and she expects those two to do well again this year.

“They’re both easy to grow. The ‘Double-Knockout Roses’ are resistant to mold and other things that often make roses difficult to grow. We’ll sell a lot of those and they’re not cheap: $16.99.”

In addition to her regular selection of bedding vegetable plants, Burke has some new ones this year, including okra and pickling cucumbers.

She said she’s the designated caretaker for the bedding plants, and she makes sure no day goes by without watering them twice.

Echoing the sentiments of consultant Terry Johnson, Burke said, “One day without water and they go from beautiful into the garbage.”

Such vulnerability has led some retailers to limit their selection or to forgo carrying bedding plants.

Publix Super Markets [11], Lakeland, Fla., stopped carrying them last year.

“We discontinued the landscape products in 2012. In order to offer new varieties in the floral department, we needed to create space and discontinue items that weren’t performing well,” said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous.

Sidebar: Robust Roots

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Home vegetable gardening didn’t decrease when the recession eased up, according to Bruce Butterfield, market research director, at the National Gardening Association here. In fact, it’s going strong.

Vegetable gardening increased 7% from 30 million households in 2011 to 32 million in 2012, and container gardening also was up 10%, Butterfield told SN.

A bigger jump had come just after the recession began.

“In 2008, 27 million U.S. households were participating in vegetable gardening. In 2011, there were 30 million households doing vegetable gardening,” Butterfield said in an earlier interview. A general view at the time was that people, affected by the darkening economy, were saving money by growing their own vegetables.

Butterfield attributes the 1 million increase in vegetable gardening from 2011 to 2012 now to the economy as well — a recovering economy.

“It’s a sign the economy is strengthening,” Butterfield said. “People are spending more for better-tasting, quality food.”

He also commented on the extreme local-ness of growing your own vegetables, and that fits with consumers’ increasingly favoring local products.

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