Advertising Nursery Plants and Trees in Newspapers

Classified ads and display ads are not used much anymore to advertise nursery plants in newspapers, although 15 to 20 years ago, plant ads were commonly seen in newsprint publications and farm magazines. Several reasons are responsible for the nursery plant businesses abandoning this form of media advertising. The main reason has been the emergence of other competitive, lower priced media forms, the most significant being the Internet, followed by free advertising offers in a regional area, all-ad papers containing only local classified ads. The advertising costs are sponsored by full page car or real estate advertisers on the front page and the back page covers. These Internet and the free ad papers will be discussed more fully later in this article.

Twenty years ago the nursery operators advertised commonly listed shrubs, trees, perennials and annuals in classified ads that were placed at the back pages of the paper. Certain plants were advertised that could be grown to reach a marketable size for sale by the nursery growers. For instance in the spring; annuals, perennials, flowering trees and shrubs began to bud and flower, and the nursery growers would list plants like petunia, azalea bushes, flowering redbud trees and crape myrtle shrubs for sale, often with a posted low-sale prices on each plant available. During the summer season, various shrubs were grown and containerized for sale, along with fruiting grapevine plants or blueberry bushes loaded with highly colored, ready to eat berries or grape clusters. Lists of shrubs such as fast growing holly, juniper, boxwood or ligustrum bushes were priced for quick sale to be used as privacy hedges for landscape borders. During the fall chrysanthemums and pansy plants were available to buy for fall color and buyers were encouraged to plant nut trees, fruit trees and berry plants, while trees were in the inactive dormant state during fall and winter for best results. Larger nurseries often used larger display ads with a photo of a featured plant image, followed by a list of plants, trees or shrubs for sale.

These classified and display ads began to disappear from newspapers with the appearance in the 1990s of regional area papers offering monotonous pages of classified free-ads, that included backyard, mom and pop sellers who grew a few easily rooted plants to advertise at below cost prices to compete with licensed nursery growers. Free classified ads were also offered to local, private, used car sellers and for home flea market items. The regional, free classified ads were sponsored by full pages ads from automobile dealerships and real estate companies, because they were willing to pay for a large local circulation exposure potential. Stacks of these printed papers were left to distribute in key locations for local circulation and later were dropped off at home driveways or sent out by bulk mail to post office box holders. For several years, these papers boomed in circulation and greatly damaged the circulation advertising markets of local newspapers. After several years the financial sponsors of the free, classified, ad papers began to drop out, mainly, because the automobile dealerships began to realize that the free, used-car, local ads in the papers were competing with their own potential sales, and most of those free papers have now gone out of business in the year, 2006.

Newspapers were able to recover much of their lost revenue that resulted from the advertising of several types of free papers to be replaced with the advertisements that began with the advent of the box stores. Box stores are large chains of merchandising giants such as Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and K-mart...........They are called box stores, because most of their buildings are shaped like huge boxes. Most of these stores carry extensive lines of hardware, school supplies, building materials, plant nursery and many other items. These stores often hire newspaper companies to print a distinctive publication, a sales paper that resembles an over-sized mail order catalog with color photos of various featured product offerings. These publications are distributed by the local newspaper circulation departments, as an additional enclosure or supplement to be found as a separate advertising unit inside the newspaper. Often the box store publications will be printed in color on high quality newsprint, appearing better in quality than the newspaper itself. Most of these box store-advertising papers are printed and inserted into the Sunday Edition (Highest Circulation), although they may appear at anytime on any day. Nursery plants often cover the entire front page of these papers in the spring with interesting four-color photos of annuals, to draw customers in to buy shrubs, perennials or shade trees offered for sale. Sometimes fruit trees, berry plants or grapevines will be featured, full of fruit to entice a shopper to drive over to the store to buy on impulse, a plant on sale. During the Christmas Season, lighted Christmas trees are photographed for sale with gifts packages placed underneath the entire tree. Many store items are shown unpackaged, as suggested gifts that a shopper can buy. Potted mums or poinsettia color photos are scattered throughout the box store paper. The nursery plant advertising campaigns in the box store papers have decreased over the years, yielding ad space for the higher priced TV’s, appliances and many other more expensive products than plants. The box store publications have become more sophisticated each year moving far ahead in printed quality, surpassing the newspaper pages that surround it.

Many newspapers are facing a crisis in circulation drop, due to televising advertising placement and the Internet, pay-per-click advertising. These box stores are wealthy enough to open their own publishing printing presses, and when the decision is made to change their distribution patterns, once an in-house mailing list has been developed from credit card sales and newspaper referrals from the past. It can be expected that the box stores will eventually quit the newspaper publishers to independently mail out their own printed papers using bulk mail services at the U.S. post offices. This separation of the box stores with their substantial financial support to the newspapers will withdraw extensive monetized resources away from the struggling newspaper circulation. Newspapers may end up on that same fateful path taken by the pony express.

There is no question that the box stores have surged forward toward the domination in the retail sales of nursery plants in the United States as garden marketers of plants. Their success in cornering the sale of annual and perennial plants has been benefited much by their sales papers that were distributed by newspaper inserts. That success may continue for many years into the future, or it may end this year. The brilliant ideas that worked for many years past, may fail in 2006. No industry, business or individual is secure or invincible in a fast changing economy, and all matters of business are vulnerable to uncontrollable world events that may threaten to unfold before us tomorrow.

Even a subtle appearance of fungus or bacteria can cause a quick death to plants, or infestations may cause a “ stop sale” or quarantine of plant material imposed by agricultural inspectors. The imposition of a quarantine of plant material by USDA officials can not only disqualify current plant sales, but rumors of such an action can influence plant buyers to avoid buying from a nursery for extended months or years because of a notice of quarantine. No gardener wants to buy plants from a diseased nursery inventory. The same “stop sale” quarantine notice can result from an insect infestation or the presence of a noxious weed in a store stocked with shade trees, fruit trees, grapevines or berry plants. The risk taken by box stores in handling live, perishable plants in quite different from selling non-perishable hammers, nails or house paint, that last incorruptibly for years; requiring no maintenance such as plants need, like watering fertilizing, light and oxygen exposure or free replacement of plants that may have been returned by customers as dead plants. Can box stores continue to operate a nursery operation as a profitable business on a long-term basis?

Author: Patrick A. Malcolm, owner of TyTy Nursery for 31 years, completed Graduate courses at Yale University, New Haven, CT., Cornell University, Ithaca, NY., and was awarded an M.S. Degree in Organic Chemistry at Clemson University, SC. Patrick A. Malcolm has traveled extensively and researched botanical aspects of plants in every European country with numerous article publications to the author's credit.

By Pat Rick