Vegetables: Here Today, Growing Tomorrow By Dianna Turner

Vegetable and herb category sales are increasing across North America, and it would be easy to sit back and simply tabulate the immediate sales. Do not stop there! The greatest opportunity in 2010 for growers and retailers is to be proactive in leveraging the increasing interest in vegetables. This is your year to add value to the category and also drive more business to other products. Vegetable gardening is more than a "trend" that's attracting new short-term consumers, but the year 2010 represents a huge opportunity to develop those shoppers and create more lifelong gardeners to ensure the future of our industry.

Data Behind the Trend

The 2008 USDA Floriculture Crops Summary, released in April 2009, shows an increase in total veggie sales of about 18 percent over 2007. What other category has generated so much excitement and media news coverage for our industry in the past decade? When you dig a little bit deeper, there's more to learn from the numbers.

USDA breaks "vegetable type plant" sales down into two types: flats and potted. Historically, flats have made up the majority of total sales. This was reversed in the 2008 Summary with vegetable pots edging out flats by almost $4 million. Pots also saw the larger percentage increase over the 2007 report : 31.3 percent versus 13.9 percent for flats. This shows that much of the growth in the category is coming from larger plants and premium potted vegetables, not traditional flats and packs.

So where are all of these additional vegetable plants going? Surveys conducted for the Garden Writers Association Foundation indicate that as you may expect, they are going into people's gardens and patio pots. Almost half (44 percent) of gardeners surveyed planned to expand their vegetable gardens in 2009, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. Not only are garden centers attracting new customers interested in vegetable gardening, but our loyal existing customer base also is increasing consumption. Expect this trend to continue with at least a third of all gardeners adding more veggies and herbs into their spaces in 2010.

Not Just a Tomato Plant

With the shift in interest from flats and packs to larger containers comes the opportunity to break away from commodity pricing and start adding value, real and perceived. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for a product that grabs their attention and offers multiple benefits.

The trick for growers and retailers is to stop looking at a small tomato plant as a small tomato plant. Try to look through the eyes of our end user, who is most likely envisioning a ripe, juicy tomato, tasty salsa or zesty pasta sauce when she purchases a tiny tomato plant.

Merchandising. Enhance that idea by making it easy for her to achieve. Group vegetables and herbs for common recipes such as salads, salsas, soups and sauces, and use suggestive photos and recipes on departmental signage. Cross merchandise your vegetables with everything it takes to produce a successful harvest: fertilizer, stakes and cages, soil and amendments, pest and disease controls, basic garden tools, and books or tips sheets about veggie and herb gardening. Take this opportunity to add to your customers' carts while they are visualizing a bountiful garden.

Use inspirational posters showing vegetables fresh from the garden and consider bringing in a load of fresh produce during peak weekend days to really attract attention with displaysÉfarmers market style. The more you show gardeners what to expect, the more confidence they'll have in their ability to grow a successful garden.

Selection. To further break from the commodity vegetable game, be sure to offer a selection of unique or attention-getting varieties in your mix. Yes, the standards like 'Burpee's Big Boy' and 'Early Girl' are always going to be your top sellers. Today's consumers want to have something different than their neighbors, and there are plenty of breeding breakthroughs and "exclusive" vegetable and herb varieties out there. You will definitely want to call out what's special and unique about these items and tell a story about them.

Packaging. Packaging is an integral part of the presentation and often the key to adding value to any consumer product. If you want to command a premium price, packaging upgrades are necessary. Informational tags and marketing tools driving consumers to web sites and online communities can help attract attention at the point of sale and provide support after the transaction. Sustainable or plantable pots and certified organic production are two more ways growers and retailers are standing out from the crowd. The bottom line: Consumers are looking for confidence in products and programs that bring flavor and health to their family table.

Once you have the products and package, it's time to get organized. Even during the retail insanity of spring and early summer, garden centers expecting to command a premium for vegetables and herbs must display them in a way that increases perceived value. Displays need to be clean, plants properly identified, clear and concise signage, culled healthy product consistent in appearance. Complete vegetable programs, like the new Burpee Home Gardens line from Ball Horticultural, remove the guesswork, bringing a comprehensive line of tried-and-true, unique vegetables and herbs in a coordinated package — from pot to tag to point-of-purchase materials — for growers and retailers of all shapes and sizes.

Opening the Gateway

It's been said that vegetable gardening can be a gateway to flower gardening, especially when we see brand new customers coming to garden centers because they want to plant their first vegetable plot. All of the ideas above about encouraging success and supporting new gardeners can build the groundwork for future purchases. One way to grow sales is by adding some annuals and perennials to the shopping carts of vegetable gardeners. There are plenty of reasons to add foundation plants and seasonal color in and around vegetable and herb gardens. Traditionally, the lines have not been crossed. But if you have the ability to plant display gardens, try combining annuals (edible or otherwise) with vegetables and herbs in some of your beds. Show your customers what can be done in their own landscapes and homes.

This will likely require face-to-face information from retail staff. Train your employees to ask questions to find out whether the customer buying vegetables and herbs is an experienced gardener or novice. Compliment them on their decision to begin a garden project and help select items with which they will be successful. Suggest annuals and perennials that enhance vegetable gardens and encourage them to stick with it because gardening can become a lifelong passion. A new customer may start with just a couple of tomatoes and peppers, but if you help them achieve success, they'll be back for more next year.

Specifically for growers, the boom in vegetables is opening doors to new customers as other types of retailers look for sales opportunities and logical crossover with existing product lines. Why doesn't every grocery store offer vegetable plants during peak season? How about farmers markets and health-food stores? The current trend in cooking and DIY gourmet speaks directly to the benefits of the products we sell. Take some time to study the retail outlets in your area and look for potential customers. You'll likely need to customize your product offering a little bit. A complete vegetable and herb program delivered to a new customer is well worth the investment.

Looking Ahead

So, what can we expect in 2010 and beyond? More vegetables and herbs in more gardens. All the information supports continued growth in the vegetable and herb category. Healthy living remains top of mind with consumers. The current economy is keeping people at home, working in the garden, and thinking about saving money by growing their own produce. Recent food safety scares continue to make "locally-grown" and "homegrown" powerful buzzwords. Finally, Michelle Obama is probably not going to plant sod over the White House garden. Thanks to our current administration, veggies are sure to be in the media again, at least for the upcoming spring and summer.

The growth in the veggie sector continues to open doors for growers and retailers, and it's vitally important to capitalize on the upward spiral. Don't think of it as only increasing your vegetable and herb sales. Instead, consider how to leverage the amazing retailer and consumer interest in "gardening" to position your business for the future.

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Dianna Turner

Dianna Turner is a retail business manager with Ball Horticultural Company. She can be reached at [email protected]

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