Surviving a devastating recession means learning to differentiate. Growers shared their strategies during the marketing, customer base and industry consolidation discussions during NGBC. Some attendees used the technique of differentiation to make some extra cash and, in some cases, found great success.
Tom Knezick, production analyst at Pinelands Nursery in Columbus, N.J., shared two developments that allow the nursery to offer more services and gain additional market share. Pinelands is a native plant nursery that sells seedlings, plugs and gallon material. The nursery often collected seed for its own production use, but it became apparent that there was a void in the market for native seed with a local provenance.
“After listening to some customers, we learned that many of the area landscape contractors needed to purchase native seed, and that along the East Coast, many landscape architects were specifying seed and plants within 25-50 miles of the project,” Knezick says.
The nursery rented 5 acres from an adjacent farm to grow product for seed. When the seed sales skyrocketed, Pinelands bought a 30-acre farm and will plant 15 acres for seed.
“We’re almost sold out of our seed mixes this year,” he says.
The local provenance of the seed gives it more value, he adds.
“And now science is backing that up. Locally sourced seed provides plants that are the best fit for the area,” he says.
Knezick also started an online garden center (www.pinelandsdirect.com), giving Pinelands a retail presence – something they’ve considered for a few years. He’s selling primarily quarts of natives from the Pinelands stock.
“This website allows us access to the end consumer without having to conform to the rules of your typical garden center,” he says. “And with this site, I’m able to trial a lot of marketing, inventory, sales and other techniques to find out what can cross over to Pinelands Nursery.”
He’s marketing the site on Facebook and to people who attend Native Plant Society meetings.
McCorkle Nurseries found its own way to differentiate. The Dearing, Ga.-based grower started a re-wholesale operation five years ago when it recognized the gaping hole in the landscape distribution market in their region, says Chris McCorkle, the nursery GM.
“It was prime time to step into that territory,” he says. “It’s been a bright spot for us because of the economic recovery that’s taking place.”
The re-wholesale company is operated as a separate business from the growing operation.
Sometimes it’s not the product that differentiates a nursery in the market, but the way it’s grown. Steve Black, owner of Raemelton Farm, a landscape-ready B&B tree grower in Adamstown, Md., tells his production story to customers and potential buyers.
“My interest right now is not so much in new varieties but how we’re growing them – our production techniques,” Black says. “When you tell people that this tree was grown with cutting-edge water management technology and other environmentally sound ways, you’ve added value to that product beyond just the tree. It’s not just what are you selling, it’s how you’re producing it. You can sell that ‘how’ to people at a higher price.”
EatSleepTrees appears on t-shirts, bumper stickers, email signatures, banners and as a hashtag (#eatsleeptrees).
“It’s a fun way to convey our company’s commitment to trees,” Uhland says.
When it comes to differentiation, Peace Tree Farm in Kintnersville, Pa., went full bore. The company, which had been known for its propagation material, de-emphasized that product and increased production of finished plants. Then the grower changed its product mix almost 80 percent. But it wasn’t without pain.
“Our sales suffered hugely for a while, but we finally were able to convince people that what we were doing made a lot of sense. We rebounded fabulously,” says Peace Tree co-founder Lloyd Traven.
“We abandoned 100 percent of all mainstream products. We decided to capitalize on growing unusual plants. We got rid of all the petunias — all that type of stuff is gone now. It’s all these weird collection of strange plants that we do.”
Traven convinced his retail customers that they could be more successful with the rare and unusual instead of the same old, same old.
“We told our customers that you can go to any garden center and see exactly the same product mix — I don’t care if it’s Home Depot or whether it’s the best independent in your area. It’s all the same stuff. And we said that you can differentiate yourself from everybody else by putting our products out front. And the end consumer looks at your place and realizes ‘this place is different.’ And that’s the home run. So we’ve kept it very limited in terms of numbers. We do small numbers of each variety and keep it scarce. And we tell customers that this is all we’re going to grow, this is all we have, and if you don’t order it, somebody else is going to get it. You won’t have any more until next year. And they’ve responded by pre-booking it all.”