Consumers were out in droves buying garden plants that included shrubs and small trees. It was so busy we had to park 500 yards away from the entrance of a number of Home Depot stores.
Saturday was one of the busiest days I have seen in a long time. It was like a feeding frenzy in some stores. There seemed to be little price sensitivity with hanging baskets at $26.98 moving briskly through the cash registers. We noticed lots of shopping carts with $100 to $200 worth of garden plants.
Home Depot in the Baltimore area is serviced by Bell Nursery, arguably their premier vendor of green goods. Bell Nursery is managing the entire green goods category with great success. It has learned how to integrate shrubs, trees, indoor flowering and foliage, and it has created the finest total merchandising package you will see at any of the national retailers.
When you walk into a Bell store, the Bell merchandising team always greets consumers and answers any questions they have. I have seen them walk customers to a particular product area and explain in detail what the person wants to know. You can tell they hire the best people and somehow find people who love what they are doing. It’s people first and plants second, and that is the hallmark of the Bell success story.
I don’t have access to any of Bell’s statistics, but from looking at how it merchandises stores and the superior product quality it sells, it would be a safe bet that they are experiencing a huge up-tick in same-store sales. Bell’s year-over-year comps have to be strong. The amount of color in their displays is so compelling consumers obviously can’t resist.
It appears Bell is not so interested in selling packs – 4-inch annuals – but rather has a focus on premium products. You see very few seed-grown items in less than 6-inch pots, and its premium lines start at the pint size ($3.98). Home Depot sells only premium baskets, starting with a 10-inch size retailing at $11.98, 11-inch fiber at $19.97 and then moves to 12-inch coco fiber at $26.98.
All baskets are full and have more color at retail than most other retail outlets. Bell understands the little nuances of merchandising, like making sure high-impact items are close to entrances. Home Depot had awesome baskets of Calliope geranium retailing at $19.98, a really outstanding value.
Bell offers Home Depot a very interesting product portfolio that includes brands such as Wave, Proven Winners, VIVA!, Vigoro, Bonnie Plants and the new Burpee Home Garden brand. It has a really interesting 6-inch Bio Pot line of annuals that is selling at a rapid rate. There is a house brand called Exotic Annuals in a 6-inch pot at $4.48 retail, a mix of vegetative and high-value seed items.
One of the most impressive lines is the geranium offering, because Bell does not put geraniums on the shelves that are not loaded with buds and blooms. One example is the new Calliope that really stood out at retail.
Lowe’s in this area does not have the customer count in their garden centers you see at Home Depot. It does have a wide variety of products and price points, and for the most part, it offers decent quality.
Brands visible at Lowe’s are Wave, Proven Winners and Garden Club Select, as well as Bonnie vegetables and herbs. There are several other interesting programs, like the Color of Coleus, Yellow Petunia, Strawberry Petunia, and Tropical Accents.
Most of the stores in the area are the original concept stores, and there are far fewer super centers than in other areas. Consequently, the garden center footprint is, on average, very small. Wal-Mart does offer outdoor garden plants but doesn’t seem to emphasize them as it does in, say, Atlanta. The stores we walked seemed to be challenged on how to keep pricing visible to the public.
Sam’s had a nice outdoor display of garden plants, which were all excellent values.
- 12-inch color bowl retailing at $7.88
- Flat of 606 packs (36 plants) retailing at $8.53
- 12-inch fiber hanging basket retailing at $17.62
- 10-inch mandevillas retailing at $26.88
- 3- to 5-inch premium annuals retailing at $9.74
Valley View Garden Center
Valley View is a great garden center that has been in the Baltimore suburbs for probably 35-40 years. It is very modern in its approach to selling lawn and garden products. Valley View knows how to sell plants and is more focused on green goods than hard lines. It was a real pleasure to visit Valley View. I’m sorry there was limited time, but I will definitely return.
Lowe’s offered a line of 6-inch annuals called Eco-Ease in a biodegradable container. Bell offered 6-inch plantable biodegradable pots they call Bio Pots along with biodegradable trays. Bell and Home Depot offered the Burpee Home Garden vegetable brand in biodegradable net pots. All three national retailers offered the Bonnie Plant Farms vegetable brand.
Eco marketing is slowly but surely making its way into this industry, and we will see much more in the near future. We just have to be sure there is real consumer value attached to each offer or they will not open their wallets.
The brand has developed a line of attractive tags and has POS signs that fit on the end of a grow cart that commands attention. From the stores we visited, the Burpee brand was achieving very high levels of sell though.
For the first time, it looks as though there is a real contender in the vegetables category. In the past, we’ve seen 95 percent of the vegetable offerings produced solely by Bonnie Plant Farm.
Over the past several years we have observed a steady increase in the availability and popularity of flowering tropicals, especially hibiscus, both as garden plants in the South and used in containers and as patio plants in the North.
Currently, we see a tremendous increase in mandevillas. The increase is driven by the introduction of the Suntory genetics and the Sun Parasol series. In Baltimore, I saw hundreds of plants in both Home Depot and Lowe’s, and they all looked fantastic. They’re selling at premium prices. It seemed as though almost every other shopping cart had a least one mandevilla.
Suntory has reinvented the mandevilla category, and everyone is benefiting. From our observations, nothing looked better at retail than the Suntory mandevilla. This may be one of the largest growth categories for the spring of 2009, thanks to great genetics from Suntory and outstanding producers like Costa Farms.
People Before Products
It is clear the renewed effort of The Home Depot to be more friendly and outgoing to everyone that enters the store is paying off. When you enter a Home Depot store, you actually feel like you are welcome – unlike in the past, when the perception was you were a bother to the associates.
This new upbeat attitude is no more visible than in the Baltimore market, where I visited 14 stores this past weekend and was amazed at how many friendly employees we encountered. Maybe some other retailers should follow suit. There is nothing like a positive shopping experience and from the look of The Home Depot this weekend, smiles count.