Here is the inaugural column from our new contributing ranter, Allan Armitage
I attended a terrific retail seminar a while ago to hear about the state of the retail plant industry. Well-known and highly competent speakers were orating, and I was soon being gently embraced in marketing and promotion. I had heard a rumor that people in marketing were not interested in plants, only lifestyles and other such twaddle, so, with an open mind, I thought I would go hear what the other side is saying about plants. The short answer is “nothing.” The long answer is the same, but a little more educational. Turns out I was in serious denial, so here is what this plant guy learned.
The good news is that this thing we call gardening is popular; we have an 85-90% participation rate of homeowners in the country (the entire other 10-15% must live in my neighborhood). Those are enviable numbers for any industry. However, it also turns out that few people out there want to work anymore.
I learned that the DIYers (do-it yourselfers) are a dying breed, quickly being gobbled up by the DIFMers (do-it-for me-ers). Thus, the only people who are making decisions on which plants to put in the McMansions and subdivisions are the landscapers (having at one time been one, I can testify that we are in trouble). Yep, the percentage of DIFMers rose from a reasonable 22% in 2000 to a whopping 46% in 2007. I see why the box stores are vigorously promoting their landscape services. The market gurus insist that the trend will continue, fewer and fewer people will do less and less gardening, and plants will more marginalized than ever.
From the perspective of the market folks, the plant itself does nothing more than fill a function: be a hedge, fill a container with color, hide the grill, or feed the butterflies. It really could be anything, the name is unimportant, and the cultivar … well, that is simply Greek. Is it not ironic that the last five years that have seen the greatest increase in new plants are the same five years that have seen people care less about them?
I learned as much about acronyms as I did marketing. Turns out that in market speak, a new group has emerged: the DSOIFMers (do-some-of-it-for-me-ers). I think the DIFMers can’t stand all these helpers running around the place. Actually, we all can use some help, so this one makes sense.
One of the most enlightening remarks I heard defined the differences between two words we use almost interchangeably: landscaping and gardening. I learned that according to recent marketing surveys, people now have the perception that “landscaping is sexy; gardening is work.” It used to be the other way around. And do you know the main reason the guy with the shovel and red pick up truck has become popular? It is because of … Home Improvement TV! Good grief, do people actually believe that stuff?
Anyway, I hear this gloom and doom all the time now. “Gardening is a four letter word; gardening is dead,” “The demand for new crops will slow considerably,” “Young people are horticulturally incompetent,” yadda, yadda. I believe some of it, of course, because it’s true. Heck, my lovely, bright, happily married daughters—both with fine homes and green lawns—don’t own lawn mowers and don’t know a coneflower from a daylily. But I don’t fret; at that age, I had no interest either, and if I could have found somebody to cut the grass, I would have done so in a heartbeat. I have heard the same gloom and doom about attendance at movie theaters with the arrival of the DVD, the same moaning about church attendance with malls opening on Sundays, but theaters and churches are managing to survive.
Every time I am asked to speak to groups around the country, both gardeners and industry people still want to hear about plants—and gardens. Times are changing, absolutely, and yes, there is trouble brewing. People are aging, style is more important than substance— which is to say “lifestyle” is more important—the Internet is everywhere, and we have to market our products differently than we did 10 years ago.
But every industry is going through the same changes. We can read anything we want on a computer monitor today, but it will never replace the feel and comfort of turning pages in a book. As for me, I am getting older, slower, and want fewer plants, but my daughters will be buying more in a few years. And they have 6 babies between them, so, though I expect some wobbling, I am convinced plants and we plant sellers will all be around for many years.