The Reality You Face By Dean Chaloupka

About five years ago, with the advent of pay-by-scan and supplier-managed inventories, I was with a buyer from one of the big box retailers when he made very clear to an assembled group of greenhouse employees that their perception of reality needed to change. It is something that I cannot seem to get out of my mind as this industry tries to find ways to inspire consumers and drive demand. It seems to be the critical issue as a basic driver for the industry's growth, new home ownership, has stopped and is not expected to significantly increase in the foreseeable future.

The basis of the discussion was that to survive in this business environment, every company and every employee needed to understand that what mattered most was what happened at the stores, not the greenhouse. What consumers like, want and demand would drive production and replenishment was a reality they needed to understand, not what was best, easiest or historically popular to grow. Add to it the everyday reality of space constraints at store level, the challenges to protect and display product, and the retailer's pressure to continually beat last month's/year's numbers and you can see why some growers have struggled with supplying and surviving in today's marketplace.

Now in 2011, not much of what was just said will come as a great surprise. It is a certainty that some growers have taken much greater steps to engage and understand what the consumer wants, to understand how they think and make decisions, but it's doubtful that it's a majority. Is it you? These leaders make the knowledge of the consumer the basis for how and what they grow, how they package it, and how they approach the market with it.

The Challenge Going Forward

But how much has the thinking with regard to the ultimate consumer and the relationship with big box retailers changed? To what extent has every employee in a greenhouse, every breeder, every tag company, pot and pack manufacturer, and you embraced the new reality? How much more do you know, and do you know as much as you really should?

Aside from adjusting production and delivery schedules for better flow to meet demand and taking on the financial risk and shrink at retail level (both very important issues and changes), how much of your perception of the plant buying public and their decision process has changed? Would you describe yourself as a consumer goods company instead of a grower?

If so, when you change sizes or packages, is it based on consumer input? Do you have consumer-driven facts either from your own surveys or from your manufacturing partners? If not, isn't your change a shot in the dark? Do you understand how the consumers read the data provided on tags or labels? This is a science, and a significant amount of time is spent by many consumer goods companies in other industries to make sure only the most relevant and compelling information is put in front of the consumer.

Do you understand what information the consumer finds important and highlight or prioritize it?

Are you constantly updating your consumer response database? Do you have a process for this? Just as in production, data gathering, trend analysis and results measurement are keys to driving improvement and change. Are you as disciplined in your voice of the customer tracking as you are in production planning and techniques?

How many of the new products you supply are based on consumer test data or information?

How innovative are you or your suppliers? The vast majority of industry innovations are production driven for efficiency sake. Pay-by-scan isn't innovative. Merchandising isn't innovative in and of itself. These are just transfers of risk or workload. Is a new red "anything" better than the old red "anything" in the eyes of the consumer?

We are not alone in our desire to increase demand!

With this last point, we also need to understand the reality we live in with respect to competition vs. other consumer goods.

Think about it in relation to other products over the last 30 years.

Music was transmitted on records, then 8-tracks, then cassettes, CDs, and now digitally downloaded to devices which allow us to store what we want, to play it when we want, and in storage amounts that were unthinkable just 10 years ago.

Computers have morphed from highly expensive desktop devices to tablets which allow the integration of social networking, GPS, movies, music, and yes, business applications.

The Internet allows people of different cultures half way around the world to communicate instantaneously, share pictures and video, and download content onto other devices. It has changed the way the vast majority of the world operates.

And as growers and suppliers communicating to the consuming public, it has become critically important to work and develop strategies around the Internet — websites, social networking sites and devices used to surf it like computers, tablets, TVs, smart phones and others. But we can't forget our core products, the items we grow and supply, which ultimately are the answers to the needs of the lawn and garden public.

Inspiring homeowners and decorators to increase usage and demand cannot be as simple as a new version of the color red for a plant. We spend time and money promoting it to each other, generating interest at the distribution level, producing it at countless trials and in the end generate no new sales or consumer interest. We replace the old but do nothing to stimulate the consumer.

A beautiful plant inspires because of how it looks, and that has been the focus of much of what we offer. How about innovation with regard to aroma and smell, another of the key senses? What about feel or texture? What about innovation with regard to additional health benefits for consumers? None of this will happen unless there is significant effort made towards listening to the consuming public and inspiring them with new answers to their needs.

The buyer was right when it came to our future and success. Our industry's greenhouses are not reality. But neither are the stores. The perception of the consumer and the ability to inspire and change their perceptions is the reality that is faced going forward.

Are you ready to accept the challenge and really innovate and inspire?

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Dean Chaloupka

Dean Chaloupka is part of Visions Group LLC, a solutions group providing marketing, management and production assistance to the green industry. He can be reached at [email protected]

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