The status quo of the nursery business has been changed forever by the entrance of the box stores into the plant and tree markets. Box stores are defined as retail stores with commercial building designs, shaped like cardboard boxes. Industry spokesman categorize box stores, such as Home Depot, Walmart, K-Mart and Lowe's, as the most obviously successful of these chain store giants. Many communities welcome the opening of new box stores, while other cities dread and invoke ordinances to prohibit new box stores from entering their markets. The reasons for this controversy has been exhaustively discussed in other published articles already, and will not be pursued further in this discussion.
Nursery plant sales by the box stores is the focus of this publication, even though the gross sales of live plants is minuscule in scope, when compared to the overall, year-round, continuous sales of box store items such as, TV's, home products and improvements, appliances, clothing, etc. Even in their own plant nursery departments at box stores', nonperishable items other than live plants receive huge sales, such as fertilizers, insect and fungicides, mulching items, pots, paving stones, sand, potting soil, etc. During the growing seasons of spring and summer, truckloads of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs arrive daily at these stores to be unloaded for frenzied buyers to load up onto buggies and to be carted out to their cars and trucks. During the slow, fall, nursery-selling season the aisles devoted to nursery plants are replaced with Thanksgiving and Christmas promotional items such as chrysanthemums, poinsettias, Christmas trees, (Live and Artificial,) and all the extra trimmings that support Christmas cheer such as door wreaths, tree lights, ornaments and on and on.
Box stores have emerged as a marketing phenomenon with an unprecedented success that is unequaled in past years, and has resulted from the box store, visionary management, dependable suppliers, financial backing and a little luck. The plant departments of box stores successfully advertised in specialized paper inserts, that listed low priced, popular shrubs, trees, annuals, bulbs, and perennials. These plants were colorfully advertised and depicted during seasons suitable for planting, when gardeners were ready to buy and plant. Printed sale papers were placed within local newspaper editions to be sent out by reliable circulation delivery boys to attract potential newspaper, circulation customers. Most recently these box store papers were mailed out directly from customer accumulated lists by bulk mail to post office box holders. Some of the box stores have begun running limited TV advertisements and Lowe's runs full page color ads in such national magazines such as Southern Living at a great expense.
Box stores are supplied in several ways with nursery plants and trees, some by local growers but mostly by contract growers. The demand for box store plants has been so tremendous that new wholesale supply businesses have been created in a short period of time to supply the demands for plants at the box stores, uniquely in some cases to grow and supply exclusive items for box store sales. Some of these wholesale suppliers have become so dependent on box store purchases that any slowdown in the national economy, caused by lagging, new home sales or a slowdown in building supplies, could cause a catastrophic domino effect of faltering business sales. The pots of gold at the end of the rainbow have be relocated to the front door of the box store nursery outlets.
The nervous chatter of the non-box store nursery operators has increased dramatically, as previously established, garden center sales at metropolitan centers began to flounder competitively, and to fail financially. An outcry of 'foul' has been read from magazine reports with claims of competitive unfairness, but the pyramidal box store growth has marched on unabatedly and appears to be unstoppable in the future with no relief in sight for small, under-financed nursery operations. Some surviving garden centers and nurserymen are chanting a call for all surviving non-box store nurseries to boycott the wholesale suppliers of plants, who continue to market their plants through box stores at lower prices than wholesale. The boycott appears to have taken hold in the years 2006, and some wholesale growers may end the year with thousands of unsold plants that may be lost because of the boycott.
A consideration of the climate is an important factor in box store plant sales. Greenhouse facilities have been constructed by some box stores, but most operations do not stock plants from wholesalers until the last frost or freeze has passed in the spring. Unsold plants in the fall must either be sent back to the plant wholesalers or destroyed, since the nursing of these plants during the winter is not financially advisable, and most nursery employees are not qualified to do the job. These statements are not applicable to certain warm climatic areas that are located below central Florida, Louisiana and California, where temperatures rarely drop below freezing. If plants are not adequately protected from cold temperatures, and if they are damaged by leaf or bark exposure to frost, the plants generally cannot be restored to a marketable condition reasonably by the box store staff.
Retail managers of nursery sales at box stores are faced with a problem in hiring competent employees to assist customers with answers to their questions about plant information, growing techniques, or a grower experience that a plant buyer expects to hear from the nursery, where he buys for his garden. This problem has been solved to some extent by labeling each plant with a plastic ID stake with a colored picture on one side and growing instructions on the reverse. This satisfies some customers, but the growing instructions all appear to be the same for every plant on many unprofessional and deficient labels. A dedicated, devout gardener knows that specialty plants require specific treatment and nurturing, that is not to be experienced from common printed flower labels or from the lips of most employees. When huge turnovers of plant inventories are sold to customers who wish to buy quickly and on a large scale, many additional employees may be required to process orders fast and smoothly. Large profits on garden plants are unrealistic when low prices are posted on plant sales. In such circumstances of low profit sales at box stores, many employees are necessary to process and to satisfactorily conclude a transaction quickly. Nursery employees cannot be paid high wages from sales of low priced merchandising, if profit is the driving motive for conducting business, instead of reducing viable competition for the box stores.
It is difficult to hire box store nursery workers who reliably show up for work on a regular basis, when low salaries are offered to the workers. Employees must fill an important position to satisfy a buyer, who will return continuously to be supplied with his plant needs. These employees must also be expected to handle the fragile plants carefully, and to load them into buggies without breaking off leaves ,flowers, or stems. The employees must know how to sufficiently and properly irrigate nursery plants to avoid over-watering, and the plants must be exposed to the correct amount of shade or sunshine in order to maintain an acceptable merchandising quality. Some plants can be dried out and damaged by circulating breezes that are generated by cooling summer fans operating inside the plant display areas. It is not infrequent that plants are damaged by customers who handle plants carelessly by fingering flowers or dropping the containerized plants to the floor.
To be continued in Part 2.
By Pat Rick