Food For Thought By Visions Group

Calling All Tradespeople!

Training new recruits can be time consuming, which is why many companies have switched from using one-on-one training sessions entirely to mixing in large online or video training components. For instance, the Home Depot trains new cashiers with online simulations that include making change and processing credit cards. The efficiency of the online training has increased the learning speed, reducing training time by 30 percent from classroom norms, reported the Wall Street Journal.

But while online or video training works well in delivering straight facts to new hires, it is not a complete learning tool for employees, especially those that interact with customers. Personal mentoring is still a necessary part of the training experience.

The Home Depot has started hiring experienced tradespeople to help coach sales associates in different departments. Roger Anderson, Home Depot's director of learning for store associates, told the Wall Street Journal that selling requires product and customer knowledge, something online learning can't deliver as effectively as one-on-one interaction.

Depot officials say they can see E-learning increase from 30 to 50 percent in the future, but in areas like customer service, sales and leadership, mentoring will still be the preferred training method.

With Depot taking a beating recently over poor customer service, it seems the company is addressing the issue with increased sales associate training. Previously, most of Depot's training for the garden center was computer based. The company now realizes that face-to-face training works best for developing customer service, selling and leadership qualities in employees.

Don't Take Our Word For ItÉ

Proponents of organically grown food don't want to be told their food is organic; they want to learn about its credentials themselves. Dole Food began labeling its bananas in February with "farm code" stickers. The stickers direct consumers to

By typing a 3-digit code into the Web site, consumers can find out which plantation grew the banana as well as organic certification details, worker photos and satellite map images from Google Earth, reported BusinessWeek.

The United States' largest organic food cooperative, Organic Valley, offers a similar feature on its soy milk cartons and has done so since 2004. A consumer who enters an expiration date at will see biographies of the farmers who grew the beans.

Consumers' interest in eco-friendly and organic products continues to increase. While the green industry has some of the most eco-friendly products around, industry members do little to promote or capitalize on this fact.

Expansion Plans Slowing

In recent years, it may have seemed as though new big box locations were opening everywhere — and at a fast rate. Thanks to that fast expansion, some retailers are now nearly at the end of their possibilities in the U.S. market and investors are pushing such retailers to cut back on the number of new openings, repurchase shares and increase dividends, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Home Depot and Wal-Mart are both among the group of retailers implementing this strategy. The Wall Street Journal reported that Wal-Mart has said it will slightly slow its growth rate this year and redouble its efforts to buy back billions of stock dollars.

"Investors often favor share repurchases because the practice reduces a company's number of shares outstanding. So each remaining share could then get a larger chunk of the money distributed through dividends," stated the Wall Street Journal.

For many years, the growth of lawn and garden has been fueled by the large number of stores the big boxes have added and not by overall growth in the category. This has meant expansion and large overall increases for the small number of growers servicing those rapidly expanding big boxes. Some of the growers have borrowed heavily to finance this expansion based on these increases continuing for the next 5-10 years.

The message here is that almost all of the boxes are scaling back expansion growth and looking to other areas to provide shareholders with sales, profit and dividend returns they are demanding. Growers may have to look to new outlets and product to sustain growth and reduce debt.

Be On The Lookout — Rural Crimes Increasing

A rise in agriculture crime has growers concerned with not only losing their product but also their equipment and supplies. California reports the largest problems with this type of crime: Last year, police chased thieves who stole artichokes, pomegranates and diesel fuel. This year, the criminals are switching their focus to nuts, avocados, citrus and even tractors, irrigation pipe and copper wiring, reported USA Today. Bill Yoshimoto, the supervising prosecutor for a 13-county central California task force on farm crime, estimates that crops and equipment worth $1 billion will be stolen nationwide this year.

Rural locations are seen as open targets after dark. There's often "nothing more than a fence on an isolated road barring criminals from bins full of harvested crops," Danielle Rau, director of rural crime prevention for the California Farm Bureau, told USA Today.

The crimes can vary by state: Southeastern states are encountering problems with illegal timber cutting. In Minnesota, Ohio and other states, criminals are siphoning anhydrous ammonia from farmers' fertilizer tanks with the intention to make methamphetamine. Thieves seek ginseng in Michigan, Japanese radishes in Hawaii and irrigation valves in Washington, reported USA Today.

While the loss of flowering crops is something growers should be concerned about, the loss of equipment and supplies to thieves is the larger problem for big growers who have numerous valuable items, from wires and piping to machinery and chemicals, in their production facilities.

Ladies' Choice

With women now influencing roughly 90 percent of consumer electronics purchases, Best Buy, perceived by many as a "guy's store," is trying to change its image. The company realized about four years ago that women were warming up to technology, reported USA Today, so to help bring them into stores, Best Buy is moving away from stacks of products, flashy lighting and fast-talking salespeople. Eventually, nearly all of Best Buy's 750 U.S. stores will feature softer lighting, quieter music, wider aisles and more personalized services.

To lure even more female shoppers, the company is also changing its workforce. Employees are being trained to talk with customers about their lifestyles, and Best Buy is pushing for more female employees and managers overall.

Even though Best Buy is starting to focus more on women, the company is not going to alienate its male customer base: The company hopes the changes will benefit all customers.

Just as men traditionally shop at Best Buy, women are the most typical garden center shoppers, and the lawn and garden industry has always taken a one-size-fits-all approach to its products and marketing. Maybe it's time to be more cognizant of who actually buys our products?

Pottery Barn: Losing Steam

In its heyday, Pottery Barn, owned by Williams-Sonoma Inc., was a trendsetting home furnishing store that created a decorating style all its own. Now, the company faces a crowded home-furnishing market and a slowing housing market, the latter of which has led to fewer homeowners making large furniture purchases.

As a result of these factors, the company's fiscal 2007 earnings are only expected to rise 4 percent, far below the company's 5-year growth rate of roughly 22 percent, reported the Wall Street Journal. Williams- Sonoma's shares have also lost roughly a quarter of their value in the past year.

Another aspect that contributes to the problem, industry analysts feel, is that Pottery Barn has reached maturation as a retailer, and other retailers are going after its customer base. Pottery Barn also has created competition for itself by launching new chains of stores, catalogs and Internet sites, which some analysts feel takes money away from the core brand.

Both the big boxes and grower suppliers have worked hard at creating brands and looks for garden centers the last few years. What everyone can learn from Pottery Barn's situation is that the creation process does not have a start and finish to it, but rather it is a continual evolutionary process that needs constant attention so that what was unique one day does not become common and copied the next. The floriculture industry is notorious for copying a product or program's success not just once but multiple times, resulting in products and displays across multiple retailers that look common or confusing to consumers.

Visions Group

The Visions Group LLC is a solutions group providing marketing, management and production assistance to the green industry. The group can be reached at (440) 319-2458.

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