Catering to a maturing market

State of the Industry - 2015 STATE OF THE INDUSTRY

Aging gardeners aren’t ready to give up gardening, but their transition to new life stages may call for adjustments — for them and for you.

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December 30, 2015

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Although many members of the Baby Boomer generation are aging, they are staying active in the garden.

It’s no secret that Baby Boomers have been the cornerstone of the garden center economy. As industry expert and economist Dr. Charlie Hall says, “Boomers are why we’re in business.” But it’s also no secret this garden-loving group is aging. Savvy independent garden centers can help guide these loyal customers as they transition into new gardening styles and services, and help keep maturing gardeners connected.

Acknowledge their diversity

AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, reports that nearly 109 million Americans are now 50 years old and older — and 52 percent of them garden. The organization also acknowledges tremendous diversity in this mature market, to the extent of producing three separate versions of AARP The Magazine to reach readers in their 50s, 60s or 70s plus. Dr. Hall, holder of the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University, cautions against generalizing too much between generations and within them.

Baby Boomers, the first generation to come of age after WWII, number roughly 84 million, according to Katie Dubow, creative officer for marketing and public relations firm Garden Media Group. (The age range that defines a Baby Boomer varies about five years depending on the data source, but the Census Bureau defines the group as persons born between 1946 and 1964.) But Boomers aren’t alone in the aging market — and they’re not homogenous. Sore knees are considerations for some maturing gardeners, but others are more concerned about freeing up time for triathlon training or travel. Though their motivations may vary, some products and services can appeal across the board.

Raised gardens are an easy way to accommodate maturing gardeners who have difficulty bending or kneeling.
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Tailor your message

While the 50-plus crowd can’t avoid aging, they can steer clear of retailers that remind them. Generational marketing expert Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, underscores the need for clever, creative messages. “Never refer to age. Older. Senior. Retired. Baby Boomers hate it,” Fishman says. Instead, she recommends appealing to Boomers’ desire to enjoy youth’s pleasures at every age, and focus on lifestyle and life stages with words like “experienced” or “connoisseur” instead.

Dubow counsels against taking aging gardeners for granted, even while reaching out to younger shoppers. “By 2020 to 2030, 20 percent of the population will be over 65,” Dubow says. She also points to the growing role the Internet and social media play with mature consumers, a statement supported by AARP. Their research found 20 percent of 50-plus adults online use social media one or more hours per day, and nearly 60 percent of adults older than 70 are online.

Offer lifestyle-appropriate plants

High-maintenance gardens can lose their appeal for gardeners interested in less exertion or more freedom. Low-maintenance and water-wise plants cut down on labor and increase free time — while reducing wear on aging knees. Position alternatives to high-maintenance perennials or flowering shrubs as easy-care options to fit new lifestyles rather than age. A fresh perspective adds appeal to compact, reblooming hydrangeas that perform best with minimal pruning and easy-care shrub roses that thrive with little seasonal protection.

Like Millennials, Baby Boomers expect to be treated like they are special, Fishman says. Respond to that need by offering uncommon plants with multiple points of interest in addition to blooms. Features such as unusual bark and colorful foliage add to low-maintenance appeal. Answer the call for less weeding with living mulches in the form of low-maintenance groundcovers or other natural mulches that appeal to Boomers’ environmentalist roots.

Introduce new gardening styles
Ann Fishman
Katie Dubow
Dr. Charlie Hall

For many maturing gardeners, less bending is better, but alternatives to traditional planting beds aren’t always known. Raised beds and container gardens, positioned with benefits such as simpler soil pH control for acid-loving edibles, offer new avenues for gardening purchases and pursuits. Containers on wheeled dollies are easier to maneuver for gardeners of all ages, saving time and effort along with aging backs.

Uncommon gardening methods, such as straw bale gardening, can satisfy Boomer desires for the special and unusual by combining raised beds and containers into one twine-tied package. Consider pre-conditioned bales, ready for personalized planting, and customized, planted-especially-for-you containers ready to roll.

Fishman encourages remembering your oldest customers, too. “Don’t write off the 90-plus G.I. generation,” Fishman says. “Their lives are increasingly limited, but they love the feeling of the outdoors.” Even in assisted living, gardening with houseplants and container edibles can meet sincere needs for nature among this group.

Expand products and services

As Boomers and other gardening generations age, Dr. Hall believes that observation and analysis are essential. “Observe your customers. What are they buying? What are they asking for? What leaves them dissatisfied? Listen,” he says. Look for lightweight, ergonomic tools with padded handles for gardeners with reduced strength or weakened grips.

Partnerships with reputable service companies and more we’ll-do-it-for-you services are keys to retaining mature consumers, according to both Hall and Dubow.

“Offer more services. Plant the tree; don’t just deliver it. Develop alliances with preferred service vendors.” Examples of potential services include lawn care, design, installation, pruning, and vegetable and container gardening.

Fishman identifies overlooked opportunities among what’s known as the Silent Generation, which preceded Baby Boomers. These historic savers hold the country’s wealth, which they’ll soon pass on to their Boomer offspring. “They feel like life has passed them by,” Fishman says. “They are willing to spend on themselves for the first time in their life.” She notes that big-ticket purchases, including landscape makeovers, are in store with this group.

Try to appeal to the youthful nature of mature customers with signage and events.
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Offer relevant activities and events

Workshops that respond to mature lifestyles and life stages in relevant ways can open new sales avenues and strengthen connections with maturing consumers. Workshops on gardening more comfortably or more conscientiously may appeal to aging gardeners, as do beer- and wine-making workshops, but activities can hit even closer to home.

Fishman notes that events aimed at grandparents and grandchildren hold special appeal with the Silent Generation. “There is a unique bond between this generation and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” she says. “They desire to spend on their grandchildren.” Expect nostalgic Baby Boomers to respond to music and events tied to the 1960s. “They are always playing back to their youth, even tie-dying,” explains Fishman. Saturday morning tie-dye workshops with plant-based dyes just may fit the bill.

Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional. She lives, writes and gardens in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.