Marketing Perennials

A couple weeks ago, a question was posted in a gardening forum on the Internet asking gardeners what their biggest complaints were concerning the marketing of perennials in nurseries and chain stores. The answers came fast and furious, some rather opinionated. Replies came from a broad spectrum of gardeners, ranging from novices just recently introduced to perennials to those who have had them for years. The one point they had in common was they were all customers or potential customers who buy more plant material when happy, and less when they are not.

Most of the comments or complaints offered were valid. Some could be traced to the grower, some to the retailer, and some back to the customer. A few were inherent to perennials, but many are common problems found in marketing any type of plant material. Many could be remedied with a few simple precautions at either the growing or retail level. Below is presented the five most common complaints.

1. Poorly labeled perennials. Poorly labeled plants were mentioned by most people. Poor labeling could be in the form of no label at all, or no botanical name, growing or plant information, USDA zone, or price listed. These are items of importance to the customer. Most people that garden have had plenty of experience with impatiens or petunias. They have, with experience, developed a feel for many annuals as to plant heights, shapes and textures, and are able to incorporate these characteristics into their landscape design. Fewer people have experience with many perennials, and as more species are introduced to the market, the problem worsens. Someone purchasing a gaura needs to know if it will go well with their coreopsis, or would it look better with their achillea. Will the plant have white flowers or pink. Does it bloom in spring or summer. Bloom time is very important as more perennials are forced into bloom for spring sales. Is it unreasonable to believe a purple coneflower in full bloom in May in the garden center will be in full bloom in May next season in the garden? The best place for this information is the label. At the very minimum, the label should give the correct botanical name so other relevant information could be looked up elsewhere. A label recently spotted at a chain store gave the following information: "Perennial, Height-Varies, Zone- Varies, Exposure-Sun/Shade". Why waste the ink to print such a label?

2. Mislabeled Perennials. This point drew heated responses from many gardeners. One told of reading about veronica. She decided this would be a good plant for her garden, and purchased one at the local garden center. Later, as the plant began to take over a large portion of her garden she discovered she was sold a mislabeled Physostegia virginiana, which can be rater aggressive and difficult to control. Mislabeling can easily result when customers do not replace a tag in the proper pot, or when labels fall out during shipping and are replaced by an unwary salesperson. The problem has been solved by some growers by attaching the label directly to the pot. This takes more effort but assures the label won’t be lost or replaced in the wrong pot. Related to this is taking plants that are grown as annuals and relabeling them as perennials. An annual that heavily reseeds itself so that it comes back year after year is not a perennial. Biennials are also not perennials. One grower at a local farmer’s market was marketing his bedding plant dahlias as perennials. Technically dahlias may be considered perennials, but none he sold came back the next year.

3. Perennials for the wrong USDA hardiness zone. Most gardeners would like to know that the perennial they purchase at their local garden center will do well when they take it home. Most times it will. But if a large chain purchases an assortment of perennials for several of their stores across several USDA zones, chances increase that a plant only hardy to zone 6 or 7 may end up at a outlet in zone 5. A knowledgeable gardener knows about microclimates and may purchase this plant for a sheltered location. More often, someone will purchase it only to have it freeze out during the next winter.

4. Poorly trained sales staff. This problem rests squarely with the retail outlets, although it is not restricted to the large chain stores. Several respondents told of poorly trained sales staff at small specialty nurseries. Worst cases were examples of customers leaving without making a purchase because they were given the impression that they were imposing on the staff by asking questions. In the chain store, the staff that was never instructed that best quality in annuals is maintained by watering the plants before they wilt, now watch the perennials wilt along with the annuals before reaching for a hose.

No one expects all garden centers to be staffed with only college graduates or master gardeners. Few would be willing to pay the price a garden center would charge to maintain such a staff. However, staff should be instructed as to the basics of plant care. A few posters, pamphlets or extension publications as point-of-sale information would answer many of the common questions customers have.

5. No or low quality plant material for fall planting. Many people attend gardening classes, read books and call their extension agent in an attempt to answer the question ‘When is the best time to plant perennials?’ They are told of the benefits of fall planting. The air is cool, fall rains make water plentiful, and the plants have time to establish a good root system. Yet when they head to the garden center in the fall, there are no perennials to be found. If there are any, they have been there since spring. They have wilted down, starved, been poked and prodded all summer long. These tired plants are more suited for the compost heap than for placement in someone’s garden. A growing market exists for fall perennials of good quality. Catalogs have known this, but few nurseries seem willing to take advantage of it.

 In horticulture, as in any other business, there are those that perform at a high level of quality and genuinely care about satisfied customers. There are also those who perform at a slightly lower level. Some growers will look at this list of complaints and say "I label all my plants, they are all properly identified and the label is secured to the pot." Some retailers require their staff to be experienced, or attend a seminar on plant care so they can maintain quality plants and answer customers’ questions. This is great and there is plenty of room for these people.

When teaching extension classes or talking with garden clubs, one can’t help but notice how knowledgeable some gardeners are. Gardening is the number one leisure activity in America and many take their hobbies seriously. There will always be the person who must be told to keep the green side up when putting the plant in the hole, but many are much more knowledgeable. They read books and ask questions. Most importantly, they are spending what they consider to be their hard earned money, and spending a lot of it. These customers know what level of quality they want and when their expectations are not met, they take their hard earned money somewhere else.