Thursday, March 24, 2011

My "Local" Garden Center is Just a Google Search Away

Apparently March is the month when convention centers around the U.S. fill up with flowers,
Image Courtesy of Renjith Krishnan
creative landscape vignettes, and vendors selling everything from azaleas to zinnias. Or not. If my online sources are correct, these shows have experienced a noticeable decline not only in public attendance but also in participation from garden vendors. Instead of finding products such as apple trees or zucchini seedlings, attendees at these “flower” shows are finding leaf-guard gutters, concentrated cleaning supplies, sharp kitchen knives, and remodeling services. In other words, there is nothing that a gardener would want to buy at a flower show.

People seem genuinely concerned about the diminishing allure of these garden shows and they acknowledge that the allure is fading for both vendors and gardeners. You would have to assume that the flower show planners are feeling the pinch too.

I have read several blog entries about this topic recently and the question that keeps coming up is “what should we do to improve the shows?” I was particularly interested in how Trey Pitsenberger, aka The Blogging Nurseryman, approached this topic as I think that his awareness of the changes and challenges facing small business owners is second to none in the nursery trade.  He writes quite a bit about how his peers in the industry need to recognize the importance of social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook if they want to stay relevant.  A few days ago, he wrote a blog post called “Adapt or Die” and one of the ideas presented in the post was that flower show promoters and vendors need to do a better job at catering to the interests of younger gardeners who are more interested in things like composting and environmental benefits than they are in the aesthetics of plants.

The post generated an interesting discussion that included responses from some of California’s gardening heavyweights such as Farmer Fred and Annie of Annie’s Annuals fame. I won’t bother to rehash their comments as you can read them at the bottom of Trey's post. But a common theme presented by some of the responders is that Generation X and Y kids lack integrity, are ignorant of gardening, are“media whores”, and are the laziest generation ever. We were painted by some as disingenuous blowhards who say we want to save the planet but we can barely be bothered to separate the aluminum cans from our trash.

I felt like a small fish swimming with the sharks, but I felt compelled to respond. I wanted to respond partly because I was offended by the broad strokes of these comments and I think that this kind of attitude towards younger “customers” doesn’t create much of an incentive for Gen X and Y gardeners to establish a business relationship with people that have such a low opinion of them. But I also wanted to share why I don’t go to flower shows. Here is what I wrote:

I don’t own a small business and I don’t work in this field. I don’t attend flower shows either. But I wanted to respond anyway.

I am a Generation X customer who is passionate about gardening and that includes growing some of my own food, composting, general landscaping, and collecting cultivars that intrigue me.

In spite of my passion, I can’t convince myself to put up with the hassle of fighting traffic and paying to park, wandering around a fluorescently-lit convention center for a few hours only to leave empty handed and disspirited because I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to buy or could afford.

My flower show is the Internet. On the Internet I can learn about plants, I can stop and pause to think about how those plants might fit into my plan, and I can choose just the plants I want. And the blogging/discussion forum communities fulfill a lot of my desire to rub elbows with like-minded individuals so I don’t even feel as much need to go and physically rub elbows with other gardeners.

I’m not opposed to going to a flower show, but what’s the draw compared to what I can experience online?
I was thrilled when Trey responded enthusiastically to my post saying that I had summarized the challenge and opportunity facing flower shows or any business looking to attract Gen X and Y customers.

I was then blown away the next day when he wrote an entire blog post about my comment. I am encouraged that someone is listening to potential customers and really thinking about the message rather than just digging in their heels and bemoaning the fact that they don’t understand the young whippersnappers of the world. He also did a nice job synthesizing my thoughts when he read between the lines and concluded that although I spend a lot of time researching and buying things online, I am not opposed to going to the independent garden centers if I know they exist and if they have given me a compelling reason to check them out.

At the risk of making this post way too long, I just wanted to add that I think Trey nailed it. I went to Google one day and typed in “sun tolerant Japanese maples” and I found Lakes Nursery out in Newcastle. Although they don’t sell online, they do have a great site with relevant information and they seem like passionate business owners. A few weeks after I found them on the internet I was at their park-like nursery loading up my truck with Japanese maples. After getting my trees in their resting spots, I wrote the nursery a 5-star review on where over 2 million unique visitors stop by each month because that's what people of my generation like to do.

One of the many splendid views at Lakes Nursery
We might not appear to be the ideal customer base for baby boomer business owners but if they want our money and continued patronage for the next several decades, it wouldn’t hurt to meet us halfway – even if that meeting point happens to be in cyberspace.

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