Gardening sales wilt

As of mid-June, when most gardening products catalogers were winding down their peak season, few were reporting an abundance of sales. While some catalogers, primarily bulb specialists, have managed to increase sales from spring 2004, many others blame weather and competition from superstores for flat or declining sales.

The longer-than-usual New England winter boosted business for Bantam, CT-based bulb specialist John Scheepers, says president Jo-Anne Van Den Berg-Ohms: “If human beings are unhappy with the weather, flower bulbs are usually happy.” The tulips and narcissus among John Scheepers’ chief offerings are durable flowers that can be grown in virtually any climate. Van Den Berg-Ohms would not say how much sales increased from last year, or what the average order was, but she says that tulips are by far her biggest sellers.

John Scheepers mails just before Memorial Day “so that customers can look over offerings some time after school has ended and people start thinking about summer plans,” Van Den Berg-Ohms says. “This timing also gives us a chance to examine the spring crop in Holland, so if variety is unstable or unhealthy we still have time to arrange for alternate catalog selections.”

The long winter not only helped John Scheepers increase sales this year, it might even help future sales, Van Den Berg-Ohms says. Tulips tend to like cold, snowy winters, so in the Northeast, for example, blooms reached their full potential size. When people see how resilient flowers can be, it boosts sales, she adds. John Scheepers increased the last press run on all three of its titles — the core Beauty from Bulbs book, the Van Engelen wholesale catalog, and the Kitchen Garden Seeds title — and increased the page count 10%, to 84 pages, 48 pages, and 44 pages respectively.

But it appears that John Scheepers was more of the exception than the rule. Jim Zuckermandel, president of the Edmond, OK-based Zed Marketing Group, a marketing services company specializing in the gardening sector, sums up the 2005 spring season in two words: “pretty flat.”

Zuckermandel admits that he was surprised by the lack of sales growth. Normally, he says, when the economy is soft and the overmood is uncertain, the horticultural industry performs well. “After we got through the presidential election last fall and people began to accept that the U.S. is at war, a big year seemed imminent,” he says. “Of course many U.S. industries have performed flat at best, but I’ve never felt so strongly that this industry would flourish. Yet it simply hasn’t happened.”

Bruce Butterfield, research director at the Burlington, VT-based National Gardening Association (NGA), agrees with Zuckermandel’s assessment of the season: “My sense is that things were indeed very flat this year.” A large part of the problem, he says, is that “the mail order culture is facing increased competition as the industry becomes more of a mass market.” Convenience-starved customers now download offers from the Web, go to their local garden center, and say, I want this, he explains.

In most cases, Butterfield adds, even though catalogers have long been the purveyor of new gardening offerings and trends, they only have at best a year before such items show up everywhere else. “Catalogers are in a tough spot because they have to compete with retail stores basically selling the same stuff.”

Once the mail order world introduces pioneering ideas, such as varieties of vegetables and flowers that can’t be purchased in stores or perennials developed by breeders in Europe, the rest of the gardening trade jumps on the bandwagon, says Richard Zondag, president of Randolph, WI-based Jung Seed Co. “Somehow you’d like to keep the box shut, but that’s not likely to happen.”

Although he agrees that competition from “big box” retail chains such as Home Depot have made the terrain rocky for direct merchants, Zondag says his company’s “overall business was only a little below where we expected as compared to last year, but gas prices going through the roof seems to have everyone in a ‘tighten your belt’ mode.” Jung publishes eight titles; five of them — Jung Quality Seeds, Totally Tomatoes, Vermont Bean, Seymour Select, and R.H. Shumway — performed as well as if not better than they had last year. The decrease was in ornamentals and perennials, with orders down in its McClure & Zimmerman and Roots and Rhizomes books. The company’s wholesale catalog, Horticultural Products and Services (HPS), had flat sales.

“People are just holding off on doing some of the things they don’t absolutely have to do,” Zondag says. Even hardcore gardeners seem to have cut out certain purchases, he adds.“I don’t know that overall interest in gardening is leveling off. I just think it’s more about instant gratification,” Zondag says. “I do believe that experienced gardeners know that they can still get the best buys and the newest trends from mail order.”

Zondag is exploring ways to make the most of the channel’s traditional benefits, offering, for instance, more unusual varieties of tomato and pepper plants. “At discount stores you can only get plum or paste tomatoes. Our catalog Totally Tomatoes can offer at least a half-dozen varieties of each plus subcategories,” he says. Zondag also plans to introduce a new packing system to avoid goods being damaged in transit and to ensure safe delivery.

The bulk of Jung Seed’s sales come in from December through mid-April, with the seeds catalogs mailing around Dec. 1 and the perennials titles dropping in mid-January. The company had increased its total circulation about 8% this year, with about 5 million copies going to rented lists and 2 million mailed to the customer file.

Waning interest?

Mike Shoup, owner/president of the Brenham, TX-based Antique Rose Emporium says his overall business held steady compared with last year’s. Nonetheless, “there’s a generalized change in public interest about the antique flower business,” he says.

Established in 1983, the company specializes in older varieties of roses. Shoup says that the old garden roses he offers appeal mostly to people interested in nostalgia and history. “Old-time tested plants used to be our biggest sellers, especially among period and cottage gardeners. Now it seems like history and education have been replaced by fluff,” he says.

Shoup mails 30,000 catalogs to customers in late August and early September, and mails another 30,000 in February to rented names. “We also do additional mailings on a request basis for a total of about 100,000 catalogs per year.”

The soggy spring experienced by much of the country didn’t help matters for Antique Rose Emporium. “We had a wet, cool spring, which can often be a good thing. But this year, it seems to have delayed some of our typical responses,” says Shoup. “We were very slow in February and March — usually our biggest times — but managed to pick things up in April and May.”

The NGA’s Butterfield agrees that a brighter spring might have improved gardening sales. Although weather can’t be totally to blame for what most considered a disappointing season, “people feel like they need temperatures in the 70s to have the gardening bug bite them,” he says.

Antique Rose Emporium is trying to encourage customers to buy in the fall to boost its spring performance. “For the 25 years I’ve been in the nursery business, I have been trying to convince people that fall is a better time for planting, especially in southern climes,” Shoup says. “True gardeners should really buy in the fall, as they can enjoy the real performance of the plant or flower they buy as they watch it start out, then make it through winter,” and hopefully watch it flourish in the spring.

One category that has done well for the cataloger is pioneer or hybrid roses. Sales of these roses, bred from both old and newer varieties, have increased at least 20% since last year. The company also reintroduced bourbon and old China roses this year because they are what Shoup calls the “toughest of the tough.”

“These historical flowers have been our forte for many years, but with people more interested in what looks good and with thousands more perennials being introduced, people don’t always know what they want,” he says. “But they’re starting to understand that modern roses can’t grow as well or last as long as some of these old-timers.”

Another cataloger of unusual, hard-to-find plants, Kingston, WA-based Heronswood Nursery, experienced a “modest decline” in sales from last year, says director of operations Robert Jones. “We’re down about 5%-10% — not from too much snow or rain but from not enough of either.” The governor of Washington had declared a drought warning in the middle of February — the peak time for Jones’s business. What’s more, he says, “the weather back in the East also hurt sales this year. If the weather goes from very cold to very warm, our selling window may close.”

The company puts out two catalogs — its core print catalog, the 248-page Heronswood Nursery Spring Edition and a 48-page holiday supplement catalog. Heronswood had increased its circulation about 30% from last year, going from about 38,000 to 52,000, and Jones expects to increase those numbers similarly for the 2006 season. Next year’s holiday catalog will double in page count, from 48 to 96 pages, and the company also plans to overhaul its six-year old Website before the end of this year.