Marketing By Beth Meneghini

The Little(Marketing) Idea That Could

Ideas are born from simple things. Something usual, something you see everyday. Then one day, somebody discovers something in the everyday that you didn’t. Something different, something better.

Case in point, Len Van Wingerden. Van Wingerden had probably come across a remote control before, maybe a calculator or two, perhaps even a camera. But it wasn’t the electronic devices that inspired Van Wingerden; it was the small ribbon hiding in the battery compartment. By pulling on the ribbon, the batteries inside simply fell out, no pulling, no rolling and no prying. Easy.

Van Wingerden got to thinking about the ribbon. And being a grower by trade and inventor by choice, he applied the ribbon idea to the design of his bedding flats.

“I first tried the idea with a ribbon. It was a failure,” said Van Wingerden. “I tried again and came up with the Wing Series, and now it works beautifully.”

This consumer plant packaging system, known as the Wing Series, is the one that earned Len Van Wingerden and his greenhouse operation, Grower Direct Farms, the rank of first runner-up in the GPN/MasterTag Second Annual Marketing Innovator Award.

Breaking the Mold

Somers, Conn.-based Grower Direct Farms grows all the usual suspects in annuals and perennials: impatiens, petunias, salvia, marigolds and osteospermum, to name a few. The operation employs about 60 people working on 500,000 sq. ft. of greenhouse space, six acres of outdoor growing area and 45,000 square feet of support building. In business for 18 years, Grower Direct hummed along in its market niche, selling product mainly to mass merchandisers, until two years ago. Home Depot, Lowes, Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, and various supermarkets in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, eastern New York and Á Pennsylvania all purchased plant material from Grower Direct.

But the once comfortable niche took on a different form in the spring of 1999. That’s when Van Wingerden first implemented the Wing Series into his business. He saw in this invention the greatest kind of marketing tool, the one that creates consumer convenience.

“The Wing Pack enhances the plant product,” said Van Wingerden. “It’s a sturdy, attractive packaging device that is consumer friendly in several ways. Most importantly, it lets consumers remove plants from the pack without any hassle.”

There are four sizes in the Wing Series, although the tray dimensions for each are identical, 8.4 by 9.6 inches. The difference comes in the size of the plant, so packs hold either 4, 6, 12 or 16 plants. Unlike vacuum-formed packs, Wing Packs are two-color injection molded packs. Depending on its size, a Á Wing Pack tray has two or four rows. Into the rows fit what Van Wingerden calls the “plant ribbon,” which in this case had to be transformed into a plastic insert.

The plant ribbon is a continuous plastic mold into which plants are placed. The plant ribbon can easily be removed from the pack, allowing customers to see the plant’s root ball as well as easily remove the cell for planting without damaging the plant or root system. No pulling, no rolling, no prying. Easy.

“The common 6-12 pack flat is a retailing nightmare,” said Van Wingerden. “Displays quickly become disheveled, and half-empty flats give customers the leftover feeling, an impression that all the best plants have been taken.”

The Wing Series is a single-sell unit, so when a customer picks one up, only the display space is left behind. Wing Pack trays have two tag-lock slots and a secure, working handle. Plant ribbons are color-coded by the number of plants they hold for easy pricing. The Series’ uniform size allows for both display efficiency and mechanical transplanting. As it turns out, the Wing Series is grower-friendly as well.

Marketing Itself

The Wing Series doesn’t have an extensive POP program. Van Wingerden did not expend a massive budget promoting his innovation. Instead, he created a series of 30 x 60-inch banners that promote the Wing Pack and the type of plant it holds, but there are no special tags, no placards and no life-size Velcro signs.

None of these extravagant measures are needed because Wing Packs sell themselves. The marketing genius is the consumer packaging. Joe Fox, sales and marketing manager for MasterTag, Montague, Mich., feels that the Marketing Innovation entry by Grower Direct Farms shows growers that there are no rules or boundaries to a marketing program. “Good ideas aren’t always elaborate or expensive, just innovative,” said Fox.

Leading the Pack

Van Wingerden owns the patent on the Wing Series and for right now, he seems to own the market on this type of consumer packaging.

“Marketing is very important to our business,” said Van Wingerden. “This idea has really taken off, and we’re consistently moving more of our product into Wing Packs.”

Van Wingerden has implemented the Wing Pack system into several Home Depot, Lowes and Wal-Mart stores in the Northeast and expects more will be on the way.

“We’ve even sold small quantities of the Wing Series to some growers so they can grow, test and market the packaging in their local area and with their customers,” said Van Wingerden.

Len Van Wingerden may not be shouting his marketing strategy from every hilltop, but he is certainly paving a way for other growers (and accepting deserved accolades along the way).

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Beth Meneghini

Beth Meneghini is West Coast Editor of GPN.

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