Consumers: Luck, Not Knowledge Or Expertise, Determines If Plants Live Or Die [10% Project]

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crossedfingersConsumers under 49 years old often think success in gardening is a result of luck. This is one of the findings of Today’s Garden Center’s 10% Project: Expanding The Customer Base.

The research team was quite surprised to hear the word “luck” being equated with success repeatedly in the interviews.

Deb B. (30- to 49-year-olds) summarizes the attitudes of many participants: “The very first rose bush that I planted all by myself actually survived! Until that point, I had had extremely bad luck with roses, and was all but ready to throw in the towel. Then I was at Lowe’s one day and I saw this gorgeous rose bush with a single flower on it, and I thought, ‘No, Deb, it doesn’t deserve to die…’ but then impulse won over and I bought it anyway. I brought it home and planted it carefully, and the next year it had buds and new growth!”

Another term, “risk,” cropped up a number of times. Because they felt they had so little control over the ultimate outcome of their landscaping efforts, the amount of time and money invested was seen as a risk to be weighed. When there is confidence that most of the plants will not only thrive but also perform as expected, gardeners focus more on the outcome and less on the effort given.

This team could not identify another product category where product failure resulted in death and people had to be lucky to be successful. The notion of needing a green thumb to be a successful gardener is alive and well.

Create Newcomer-Friendly Gardening Projects

Cooking can be as daunting as gardening. It takes time to prepare some dishes and you make a mess in the kitchen. However, Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee have made names for themselves in the kitchen by reducing the time-consuming and messy aspects of cooking.

Why can’t we do the same for gardening? We need to counter the risky, time-consuming, really-hard-to-do, must-be-an-expert assumptions many people have about gardening with realistic and attractive projects.

We need to show consumers how to put some plants together, in a basket or box or in the ground, and get the right combinations into the right locations. If they are successful with a simple combination, we increase their confidence and encourage a repeat purchase.

Foster confidence and let them understand there is learning that comes from gardening ‘failures’
There aren’t many other industries where so much of customer success is attributed to “luck.” So, how do we reduce the perceived risk? Any way we can!

Advertise your plant guarantees. A study by J.H. Dennis and Bridget Behe (2007) showed that the presence of plant guarantees helped reduce perceived risk and improve repeat purchase intentions.

Offer a gardening coach. This can be done by sign-up or subscription and could be handled by eMail, telephone or text. Ask customers if they would like some free advice. To keep it manageable, set a limit on the coaching time.

Now What Can We Do?

The second part of our Expanding The Customer Base project is to take this information and develop some recommendations that are transformed into activities that traditional garden centers can use. In the coming months, we will develop these findings into action-based activities and work with garden centers in Ohio and volunteer garden centers from other parts of the country to see how doing things differently can make a difference in sales and profits.

Editor’s Note: As part of Today’s Garden Center’s 10% Project: Expanding The Customer Base, we asked focus groups of consumers under 49 years old about their garden shopping habits and attitudes.This article is the fourth on the key findings gathered from the research.

Bridget Behe is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University. You can eMail her at

Susan Hogan ( teaches marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and consults with businesses on how to best reach their customers. Carol Miller is group editor of Today’s Garden Center and Greenhouse Grower. You can eMail her at

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2 comments on “Consumers: Luck, Not Knowledge Or Expertise, Determines If Plants Live Or Die [10% Project]

  1. Texas Triffid Ranch

    This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, as I hear this constantly. One of the biggest issues with trying to sell plants to younger customers (and by “younger”, I generally mean “under the age of 50″) is that nobody’s taken the time to walk them through what they need for a plant’s care. Understandably, after taking risks on buying orchids or various houseplants, with the risk being more financial than anything else, they’re very leery of risking more money on plants that could disappoint them just as much. (I specialize in carnivorous plants, and I’m constantly told by potential customers about their horrendous experiences with those “Carnivorous Creations” grow kits, either as a gift or as a direct purchase. They’re immediately relieved to discover that those kits are a challenge for experienced carnivore growers, but then they also kick themselves for having spent the money in the first place.) This is an issue that definitely requires more educational efforts on behalf of garden center employees, and not just pulling growing and care instructions out of their butts. (Yes, many new customers may come to you and pump you for information, only to buy online so they can save a bit more. That’s a risk as well. However, customers treated fairly soon realize that they won’t get a comparable amount of support from eBay sellers, and they often come back. Lie to them, or leave out critical information necessary for decent care, and no incentive short of throwing $100 bills at them will ever get them to come back.)

  2. Sid Raisch

    This is important work and demonstrates the value of research. Unfortunately this level of fear is our fault. We have either failed to communicate correctly and have left many customers confused and hopeless, or we’ve failed to communicate at all which may be the greatest failure of all.

    All of the focus on total sales, average sale, and transaction counts in past years has been misplaced. If we were instead more concerned that the customer become a customer for life there would be greater sales, higher average sale and more transactions. The first thing to do to increase any of these things is to make sure customers come back and too many of them are not.

    We need to get over ourselves, remove the jargon, and be willing to communicate one on one with every customer possible. Oh I know I’ve heard it that this can’t be done in peak spring! But we can do a lot more even then if we want to and don’t just blow off any effort.

    This could be the year to turn from Create a Garden thinking to Create a GardenER thinking. The attitude needs to change to where we are striving to become Customer Experts first and then Product Experts to serve the customer.