Q: What do you see happening in independent garden centers with organics compared to what was happening three or four years ago?
Colburn: Currently there is an overwhelming trend towards purchasing organic soils and fertilizers, not only for vegetable gardens, but also for regular landscape gardening. Many consumers no longer want to have heavy synthetics in their home for the protection of their children, pets, and overall health and well being. They also want avoid contaminating storm water runoff with powerful salts and pesticides.
As a result, you are noticing a savvier buyer who is more educated in what they want before they go out and buy it. They will research online what they want and what is beneficial for them.
However, you also have consumers that just want something organic, and they will buy what their garden center recommends. A big advantage for independent garden centers is that many of the organic lines support only independents, and not the big box stores, and if you are carrying an organic line that is in big box, you should seriously consider if it is a line you want to support. By having a line that is not available in big chains, it allows the independent to carry a line and make a margin that is profitable, while offering exactly what the consumer wants. The box stores are noticing this, however, and they are quickly getting behind organic lines as well.
Q: How important is the “organic” piece of the puzzle for garden centers and their customers vs. a more general “green” or “natural” or “sustainable” message?
Colburn: All are important.
Generally speaking, organic means that the ingredients came from either a plant or animal source with minimal and non-chemical processing. Natural can describe any ingredient that is derived from the earth. Sustainable can involve products that do not require a lot of transportation or are from a local source, solar lighting, hydroponic sets, compost bins or devices that capture rain runoff. Garden centers should encourage their staff to study the differences between organic and natural and sustainable, and what that may mean from product to product.
All three items are a powerful combination of goods and services that will allow for a revenue source that garden centers need in lieu of just plants and it is what consumers are looking for.
Q: Where is the demand for green products and services coming from?
Colburn: The demand for being green is coming from a consumer’s need to be environmentally conscious. It surrounds them in the media, children are being taught sustainability in schools, and everyone has a part to play in maintaining the vitality of the earth as well as their own health and the health of their families.
The two biggest green pushes are in recycling and in resource conservation. Water sources are being depleted or polluted with runoff from salts or heavy nitrogen and phosphates. Many states have begun regulating allowable amounts of phosphates and nitrogen in water.
Conserving energy is big too. People are looking into alternative ways to offset heating and natural gas bills, such as solar energy or use of additional windows.
It is very clear that when you combine consumer demand, social consciousness, and some government and state regulations, the green movement is not a flash in the pan. Providing goods and services that meet the demand of the green consumer is vital for retailers.
Q: Are prices a factor? Are consumers willing to pay the premium when a comparable non-green product is available?
Colburn: Organic and sustainable products are still a bit more expensive when compared to traditional products. However, that has not stopped the consumer from wanting those products in any way. Some of the highest growth categories of the last three years have been organic soils and fertilizers, organic fungicides, organic insecticides and organic seeds and seed starts.
Many consumers do know the difference between a high quality organic good and a low quality which is why you see a price difference from manufacturer to manufacturer. Good ingredients and green manufacturing practices cost more money to produce. Consumers are now looking at the overall product, not just the price. They are paying for quality and they are trusting what their garden center recommends, which is vital in the success of organic goods.
In regard to a consumer paying a premium for an organic good over a non-green item, the answer is usually yes. Being organic is not just what you buy, it is the feeling behind it. Consumers will pay a reasonable price to get the right product, but it needs to be of high quality and work well.
Q: How much education is needed for these products? Are retailers and consumers more informed today?
Colburn: I believe education is always the key. There is a general knowledge base about organics and being green, but not as much about its ultimate goal, which is sustainability and ecological vitality. Manufacturer, retailers, state agencies, schools and green groups should be shared knowledge with the consumer. Social media and the Internet, however, have really catapulted green awareness into what it is today. Retailers with websites and social networking sites not only bring awareness to green goods, but boost sales as well.
Q: What “green” products are the most successful in the garden center today?
Colburn: The most successful are organic items like soils, fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, vegetable starts, seeds and food-related items. Those have boomed. Green items like solar lighting and compost bins have also taken off.
I believe that degree of success depends on the effort the store puts behind it and the area in which it is sold. Geographically, there are parts of the U.S. that are just beginning to think of green products, let alone demand them. So, it is important that as a store you are purchasing appropriately for your market. If your local grocery store has an aisle or organic product, chances are your community wants organic and green goods. It is always safe to start with anything organic related to food production.
Overall, the green industry is large and hugely profitable for the independents that promote it. Yes, the box stores are answering to this demand as well yet we are still noticing that consumers who want green goods are continuing to support their local garden centers and feed stores for those goods because they know that they will need some knowledge behind it, which the box stores just do not provide. Most people gardening these days are interested in being ecologically conscious, so the garden center should be as well.