Stepping Up With Stepables By Tom Cosgrove

If you're ever in need of inspiration while trying to inject some new life into your product mix, visit any of the gardening Web sites that feature a Question & Answer section. For example, one of the most commonly asked gardening questions is: “What can I plant between stepping stones and pavers or use as a lawn substitute?”

This is actually a good question. The typical answer is “groundcovers,” and whatever expert is fielding the question might offer a sampling of low-maintenance groundcovers with varying degrees of tolerance for foot traffic.

Now the bigger question: Why haven't enterprising growers picked up on the obvious opportunity to promote this large category of plants custom-made to fill an almost universal landscape need?

A case in point might be Frances (Fran) and Mark Hopkins, who started Salem, Ore.-based Hopkins Nursery in 1990. The company initially offered a dozen or so groundcovers.

“My father was a groundcover grower, so we naturally gravitated toward these kinds of plants,” says Mark.

In the early 1990s, the crops upon which the Hopkins staked their fortune had the glamour of grout. These plants were perceived as garden workhorses whose function as “groundcover” was interchangeable with that of gravel or outdoor carpeting.

“We soon got bored with the monotony of product generally offered as 'groundcovers' to the garden centers and by extension to home gardeners.” says Fran.

Over the ensuing years, Fran made it her mission to seek out plants that would allow the nursery to broaden its selection of groundcovers. “We started offering ferns, sedums, sempervivums, ornamental grasses, ivies and perennials,” says Fran.

The Hopkins' started getting excited about the marketing potential of their growing collection of unique plants. The groundcover business was becoming fun. “We're so excited, we wet our plants,” was typical of the whimsical language they incorporated into their promotional brochures, as was the new name they chose for their nursery in 1998: “Under A Foot Plant Co.”

Can you really step on them?

Mark and Fran were ready to take their company to the next level. The genius of the marketing program they developed lies in its simplicity.

Fran explains: “We always welcomed visitors to our nurseries, and of course the question everyone asked, and it was sort of a two-pronged question, was, 'What can we put between stepping stones, and can you really walk on that?' My general response would be to jump up and down on the flat to prove my point. 'Sure you can step all over them!' I'd proclaim.”

Lo and behold, one day about a year ago the name “Stepables” literally popped into Fran's head. “STEPABLES (the brand name is all upper case) is a made-up word for which we now own the federal trademark,” says Fran.

A concept that had been percolating in the back of the Hopkins' minds suddenly reached critical mass. “We put ourselves on quite a fast track,” says Fran. “We knew we had something good, so we pushed forward with our production. More than half of our product already met the STEPABLES criteria.”

As for the marketing program, the Hopkins worked with MasterTag to create a unique tag in which the descriptive variety photo is designed in the shape of a foot. The back of the tag features a 'Happy Guy' (conceived by MasterTag for Under A Foot) who leads the consumer by the hand (more accurately by the foot!) through the care and maintenance of the plant. A smaller highlighted foot indicates that the plant can withstand “light,” “medium” or “heavy” foot traffic.

P.O.P. for the program also includes a three-foot-tall yellow Happy Guy that holds vibrantly colored signs promoting the STEPABLES display area. Under A Foot provides consumers with “owner's manuals” and planting guides that feature 20 of the most resilient STEPABLES along with detailed instructions on care.

“The STEPABLES program gets bigger by the week,” Fran asserts. “We sent out press releases last year to more than five hundred news agencies and garden writers. We were bombarded with telephone calls, and interviews. We've been featured on Rebecca's Garden and on Good Morning America, and in many of the major gardening magazines.”

Needless to say, Under A Foot's STEPABLES brand is gaining national recognition. Among the distributors of STEPABLES plants are Skagit Gardens (Mt. Vernon, Wash.), Twixwood Nursery (Berrian Springs, Mich.), and Green's Garden & Nursery (Glen Aubrey, N.Y.). The nursery's core customer base comprises about 60 garden centers in a 150-mile radius, but STEPABLES plants are currently distributed in 18 states as Under A Foot gears up to expand distribution throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The nursery currently carries more than 50 STEPABLES varieties, all carpeters (under 12 inches in height) or creepers. “The program was designed to enable growers to match high-profit items with minimal restrictions,” Fran explains. “Most finish in four to five weeks and none of the plants have patents to restrict production levels. We don't grow any 'problem children'; if it doesn't sell, or has a high mortality rate, it's out of the program.”

The nursery provides tags and P.O.P. materials, while growers choose pot sizes and product mixes with the assistance of Under A Foot. (Licensed growers pay Under A Foot a one-time marketing fee plus an annual maintenance fee.)

The little company that could

These days, “shock” is the typical reaction of a first-time visitor to the nursery, Fran notes. “People who are just learning about us assume that we are a large operation. They are amazed by how small we actually are. We have just learned how to juggle space while keeping quality high. Every square inch is utilized.”

This “small” company (about 10 full-time employees) has produced over a quarter of a million plants, utilizing 6,000 square feet of heated (Biotherm) greenhouse space, 5,000 square feet of cold frames, and about 2,500 square feet of outdoor sales yard. The nursery grows about 60 percent of its plugs inhouse, buying in those that take more than 10 weeks to grow out.

Demand shows no signs of peaking, so the Hopkins intend to expand, although specific plans have not yet been drawn.

“The philosophy behind our marketing is to invoke fun,” says Fran. “When gardeners see the 'Happy Guy' in the display or on our Web site (, the first reaction should be a smile on their face. This is a fun program, it's easy to promote, and it is a pleasant experience for the consumer.”

Joe Fox, sales and marketing manager for Montague, Mich.-based MasterTag, feels that the Marketing Innovation entry by Under a Foot demonstrates the strength of promoting a project or activity for the home gardener. “Under A Foot stresses the unique uses and application of STEPABLES to the consumer in a way that fills a basic need, while adding the element of 'fun' to the selection of plants.”

The GPN/MasterTag Marketing Innovation Award 2000.

MasterTag has enlisted GPN as co-sponsor of a competition designed to show growers that marketing and merchandising plant products through grower-generated marketing programs directly enhances the bottom line. Under A Foot has been awarded “honorable mention” in The GPN/MasterTag Marketing Innovation Award 1999.

The winner of last year's competition will be featured in next month's issue of GPN. See “Floriculture Producers Answer The Call For Marketing Programs That Produce” in the April 2000 issue of GPN for more on the competition.

Tom Cosgrove

Tom Cosgrove is editor of GPN.

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