Thinking Small By Dean Chaloupka

There is a saying that "all politics is local": in essence, that national affairs may be interesting, somewhat influential and worthy of being monitored, but ultimately, success for elected officials is about what gets done close to home.

As spring 2009 begins to wind down in the horticultural industry, growers and suppliers also will find that their ultimate success (or failure) has much more to do with an ability to understand, read and react to local needs than it does with our nation's state of affairs and the economy as a whole.

Many growers and retailers alike have urged consumers to buy local and support businesses and suppliers who create jobs in their communities and states and thereby positively impact the local economy. At the same time, then, think of supply on a local level. The most successful (read: profitable) already do. But how?

Take Steps Forward

Know more. Successful growers believe they should — and do — know more about their local markets than any big box merchant or buyer. Most would agree and expect a supplier to know the individual needs of each store, district or region. This is also evidenced by every major retailer with lawn and garden departments now supplying daily sales data to the supplier and judging them based on their ability to manage sales, inventory levels, shrink and margins.

Make sure you have the staff and systems to analyze store history and in-season demand, and do preseason planning and in-season flow based on this constant and repetitive analysis — both during the planning cycle and during the mad rush — to replenish product.

Connect. Successful suppliers connect with the end consumer. A distinct advantage independent garden centers have over national retailers and their suppliers is their direct contact with the consumer each day. Engage with customers at the stores through merchandising staff or sales events. Consumers say that few brands in lawn and garden resonate with them; how the plant looks is most important. They are also starved for knowledge and need help understanding our products. Who better to talk with a consumer than someone who understands products that can be confusing or intimidating?

Collaborate. Successful suppliers connect locally with the other growers within their marketplace or region — even though they are competition. This has been prevalent among small, independent garden centers and must become part of the DNA of large growers going forward.

Keep an Eye on Credit

It's not just customer relationships that build a company; relationships with vendors and banks also matter. The issue of credit will surely affect many growers this summer; credit policies throughout the country are changing and tightening, and this should be expected going forward from banks as well as the vendors who extend terms to growers for next year. A signal of trouble to come: During the spring season, many suppliers who sell to growers have had accounts-receivable levels at all-time highs. A rise in delinquent payments will likely follow.

Fostering an intimate relationship with those who extend credit — so that they understand not only your needs but also your business plan — will be crucial, and those who still expect a "business as usual" attitude from those who supply credit are surely mistaken. It will also be a tough summer for those who have missed their plan and need additional or extended financing. It will be best to be proactive and open with those vendors and lenders that form your business' "local" support system. Waiting or withholding negative news or results will only worsen a bad situation.

Speed Up Your Process

Get through it all, and what do you face? The need to move faster. Big ships are harder to turn and slower to do so, but your success will ultimately depend on your speed to adapt and embrace change for your organization. Your challenge: Measure the amount of self-imposed change between now and the next issue of Big Grower. Try to surprise yourself. It's not long before spring 2010 planning kicks in.

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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