Indoors or outdoors? Large or small? Dark or light?
These are among the questions pottery vendors ask themselves each year because of rapidly changing consumer buying habits. A container or style that’s hot one year may be in the doghouse the next, so staying in tune with trends and providing products that match those trends is how vendors generate business for independent garden centers.
It’s difficult, of course, for all vendors to agree on the characteristics that will drive pottery each year, but containers for indoor use, mid sizes and subtle colors are among the trends pottery vendors anticipate to develop this year.
“The most interesting thing for this year is that very subtle, subdued colors are popular,” says Bisser Georgiev, vice president of SK USA, a German-based vendor. “We also see a huge increase in indoor versus outdoor. This is because of a migration toward urban areas away from suburbia. The home is becoming smaller and investments in landscaping are being replaced by interiorscaping.”
For 2011, SK crafted a pottery trends report based on information the European Floral & Lifestyle Suppliers Association (EFSA) compiled over the last few years. According to the report, consumers worldwide have been trending more toward indoor ceramics, indoor plastics and fiberglass containers.
EFSA also broke down the percentage of indoor and outdoor pottery sold worldwide in 2007 and 2009, finding that 59 percent of all pottery sold in ’07 was designed for the outdoors. In 2009, though, just 51 percent of all pottery sold was designed for outdoors, meaning indoor pottery was on a path to surpass sales of outdoor pottery by 2010.
SK provided metrics on its top sellers in the trends report, as well, revealing that shiny white (41.71 percent), shiny bordeaux (16.32 percent) and shiny vanilla (9.44 percent) are the company’s top-selling colors worldwide.
Another development on the pottery front is taking place in China where, as Jackson Pottery’s Erik Van Zyl describes, the country is experiencing a labor shortage.
“More people are moving toward cleaner jobs,” Van Zyl says. “They don’t want to do the dirty factory jobs they used to do.”
Van Zyl goes as far as to say a middle class is developing in China. The shrinking lower class, in turn, is putting more pressure on Chinese factories to find the adequate number of people to produce the numbers U.S. vendors are demanding and meet their time constraints. Ultimately, Van Zyl anticipates Chinese employers will increase wages to make factory jobs more attractive, but increased wages will force China to push costs onto vendors, who may eventually have to push costs along the supply chain to retailers.
“Because of the one-child policy that’s in place in China, there are no young generations coming in,” Van Zyl says. “It’s only going to get tougher and tougher. Pottery will become more expensive over the years.”
In the meantime, Van Zyl suggests retailers planning to order pottery imported from China provide vendors with enough time to make sure orders are fulfilled.
“It really takes a lot more time to order product and get it here,” he says. “We’ve encouraged our customers to order earlier. As far as us helping the industry, we’re extending major payment terms. We’ll ship in December, and April 15 is when retailers will pay. That makes it very challenging for us – it’s a huge capital layout we have to accommodate – but that’s what you have to do.”
Once retailers receive their pottery, vendors have several timeless suggestions to keep product moving. Peter Cilio, the creative director at Campania International, says display is always key, particularly making sure displays are attractive, clean and color coordinated.
“Change it around and mix it up regularly so that displays are fresh and customers want to come back to see what’s new,” he says. “Plant a few pots. Coordinate the colors of the planting with the glazes or take inspiration from the season. This is a great way to help customers visualize how to use glazed pots in their homes and garden, and it will certainly get them excited about the category.”
Steve Kainer, the owner of Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery in Cedar Park, Texas, agrees display is a key to sales. Letting pottery dust up in a back corner of the garden center isn’t an effective strategy.
“One of the big reasons we move a lot of pottery is we use a lot of it in water features,” Kainer says. “We choose a lot of pots that are going to look great with water – a lot of $500 pots. We also move a lot of planters, and I would say the biggest factors with them are variety, volume and quality.”
Region is another factor that drives pottery sales. If you’re located in Central Texas, like Hill Country, your customers probably have a more rustic flair than folks looking for that clean, glazed look.
Marc Craven of Craven Pottery has a few words of advice for retailers, too: Know which sizes sell best. Five hundred dollar pots may be bread-and-butter products for niche-focused garden centers like Hill Country, but the majority of garden centers will find more success with sizes most customers can afford.
“The big pottery is slowly fading away,” he says. “You’ve got to look to your mid-size stuff between 16 and 22 inches,”
Considering the economy and other factors that have slowed pottery sales in recent years, it’s likely most retailers would take any sales increases in the category if they were given the choice. Based on a survey Today’s Garden Center recently conducted, pottery sales were flat for one-third of retailers last year compared to 2009. Another one-third indicates pottery sales decreased in ’10.
That leaves yet another one-third of retailers who achieved pottery sales increases, including less than 6 percent who indicate their pottery sales spiked more than 10 percent last year. Larry Fransen, the president and CEO of Red Oak Garden Center & Landscaping in Saint Bonifacius, Minn., is among that fortunate 6 percent.
So how did Red Oak do it?
“The biggest thing is we made the commitment to be a vendor of pottery,” says Fransen, who formed Red Oak in 2009 after purchasing an existing garden center business and its real estate. “That means carrying more than just a little bit and acting like you really are in that business.”
Display, as Cilio and Kainer stress, was also a key to Red Oak’s success. Fransen invested in new benches on which he could display pottery, and he took the time and used his imagination to develop end caps to push sales. But arguably the biggest key to Red Oak’s success with pottery was employee training.
“One thing we talked about was glazed pottery,” Fransen says. “Glazed pottery is more watertight and you’ve got less air moving through it. The other thing we told them is there are different qualities of glazed pottery. The quality becomes a factor so far as chipping, moving and freezing. If people make a mistake and leave their planter outside in a Minnesota winter, it may expand and crack if you haven’t emptied the pot of soil.”