Over the last 20 years, the plant tag has gone from a way for the grower to label the product to a way for the consumer to gather information on the product of purchasing. Tags and labels are now about consumer information, why the consumer should buy that product, care and pricing at the point of purchase. Rick Vulgamott, national director of sales for the horticulture division of WestRock, says tags and labels excel in their role as a silent salesperson.
“One way to help make sure the customer feels a little more comfortable about buying the product is to support their buying decision with features and ‘why buys’ right there at eye level on the plant,” he says.
Bob Lovejoy, president of Hip Labels, shares a story from a recent meeting with the manager of a South Carolina garden center that purchases tags from his company.
“She said, ‘Bob, when we’re busy; 90% of the customers in here don’t get to see somebody face to face. And the plants with tags sell much better, much easier. If there’s no tag on it, people just walk away from it. They don’t know what to do with it.’ So at least in that one situation, the retailer realizes how much value a tag adds to the sales process.”
Lovejoy says that branded tags are playing a huge role in the tags and labels industry — much more than they were 10 years ago. And the reason that’s changed is the consumers themselves are more receptive to branding. Millennials that “finally got up the guts to go to a garden center” are not as price-driven as earlier generations.
“They’re not going to buy a plant for a dollar or two,” he says. “They’re going to buy the plant that looks the best. It has the best instructions and that bodes very well for the branded products.”
In addition to its standard hang tags and stake tags, Hip Labels makes custom pot wraps that are popular with branded plants.
The essential info
What should be on a tag? There are a few things that can help that plant sell itself. Instead of simple care requirements, you want to give the consumer reasons to buy that plant. If it attracts butterflies, or it’s drought-tolerant or deer-resistant, put that on the tag.
Vulgamott says at WestRock, they’ve moved away from information about what not to do. Opt for information that entices the consumer to make a purchase, not warnings that will make them think caring for this plant will be too challenging, which end up driving them to spend their money on something else.
Icons are easily-recognizable images used to present care information: for example, full sun, or shade. They can also be used to detail how much water a plant needs or what its size and shape will be at maturity. WestRock uses icons on almost every tag or label they produce, Vulgamott says.
“It’s our version of a plant emoji,” he says. “People recognize emojis; they therefore recognize icons. Space is limited on a tag or label. So we really have to concisely put the appropriate information on there that the consumer feels comfortable with and will see quickly.”
Tags and labels are just one part of WestRock’s business. The company manufactures POP, along with corrugated packaging, which includes shippers, displays and adhesives all in-house. The point-of-purchase material provides helpful info that sells more plants.
The new gardeners who purchased plants online during the COVID-19 pandemic will need help keeping their purchases alive, and that’s where the tag comes in.
“Our customers are shipping plants to people who can’t spell plant,” Lovejoy says. “They have no idea what they’re buying. They want to have to have it in their apartment or condo, just because it’s cool.”
Lovejoy says these online purchases should be accompanied by not only an informational tag, but growers and retailers should use it as an opportunity to talk about the company plant was purchased from and why you should buy your next plant from them, too.
Innovations in automation
The printing and application of tags and labels is all on the grower’s shoulders. Typically, a retailer will direct the grower to use a label or tags in conjunction with labels. It used to be common to use a tag to convey information to the consumer and a blank white adhesive label with black print to communicate the UPC and price point. They were separate items applied separately.
As labor became a bigger issue, growers needed to find a way to minimize the number of touches to the plant. At the same time, retailers wanted all the information on one component.
“Everybody’s having labor problems and labor costs are just getting out of hand,” says Tony Cook, CEO of Great Lakes Label, the owners and creators of the Label Gator brand of products.
Cook says he’s seen facilities with 50 people applying labels by hand. When it comes to tagging, it’s not abnormal to see eight or nine people per production line handling tagging to keep up with run rates of the other equipment.
The biggest complaint he hears from growers is a lack of labor to tag plants during the production process. And handling the inventory in the tag room is quite a job itself.
“Those (tags) don’t just get to the line themselves,” Cook says.
“So they create a make-work program where people are running around trying to get the right tags to the right line.”
There’s also the minimum order question. Many growers have pallets and pallets of boxes of different tags that they can’t use.
“Every grower has at least a 30% obsolescence rate in tags because they have to buy a minimum of a thousand of everything,” Cook says. “They throw away so many tags at the end of the year.”
Lovejoy agrees and says the trends he’s seeing are that growers want to make more frequent orders with smaller amounts. It has forced his company to examine its production methods.
“Shorter runs, quicker turnaround is the way the world is going,” he says. “Not just with tags and labels, but in general, but it’s certainly spilling over into our world.”
Big-box retailers are trimming SKUs, but Lovejoy believes garden centers are adding more in a bid to differentiate themselves. He also says people are getting smart when it comes to inventory. Printer trade practices have allowed for shipping plus or minus 10% on an order. That means if a grower ordered 1,000 tags for a particular plant, the printer could (and usually would) send 1,100. When you multiply that by 400 SKUs, you begin to see how this becomes a logistical problem.
“Over time, inventory gets to be a real issue for growers,” “I have seen tag rooms with hundreds of thousands of dollars of excess inventory that wasn’t ordered, and growers just keep it because they paid for it,” he says. “But when you go towards smaller orders and more frequent orders, you can get away from that type of ordering and just order what you need.”
Labels are growing in popularity due in part to these labor issues. and several companies manufacture machines that can automate the application process. Some growers opt for machines that can print and apply labels in-line to containers. Some prefer to print separately, in a room away from the containers and growing media lines.
WestRock manufactures a line of applicators called RockLine. Label options include partially-printed, fully-printed or print-on-demand labels.
“We know the challenges they have with just-in-time inventory and last-minute requests,” Vulgamott says. “And so we just try to give them the flexibility to execute properly. We can put together the best system in the world, but if we don’t make it easy for the grower to execute, it’s worthless.”
Tony Cook, CEO of Great Lakes Label, has noticed a shift from growers using apply-only machines to those that print and apply. The flexibility of on-demand variable-printing is a great help to growers that sell many different varieties.
“The tag is more than double the price of the label and it can’t be automated,” he says. “So it’s very labor intensive and it’s static information printed on the tag. You have to have an inventory of every single SKU that you sell. But with the label, you may be able to use one label for hundreds of different SKU numbers and variable-print the data on demand as you’re applying the label automatically.”
Cook says another reason businesses are moving away from tags and toward labels is in part because of the recent advances in label printing techniques. From a hot stamp to a cold foil metallic to embossing and tactile coatings that have raised bumps you can feel.
Tags hold a lot of information but can be expensive and require a lot of labor. To fit more info on a label, Label Gator developed expanded content labels that have a hinge on one side and peel open.
And for growers whose retailers still want a tag but with the other advantages of a label, Label Gator created the Lagit, a label with a built-in, peel-off tag. The Lagit can be printed on a Label Gator machine or ordered from the company.
Not every grower will want to invest in a machine to automate this process, and there are other options. Lovejoy says one of the biggest growth areas of his business is digital printing and production. Also, for the last 18 months, Hip Labels has been testing alternative materials for tags and labels, paper-based and non-petroleum-based plastics options. Lovejoy expects this work to play a key role in the company’s future, and believes younger more environmentally-conscious consumers will respond well to the new materials.
The first time I wrote this article, it was in PC (pre-COVID) times. I wanted to talk about how we as IGCs must focus on becoming a dynamic as possible to remain relevant in people’s lives. These days, if you’re anything like us, you’re finding that you are suddenly more relevant than ever. Between being stuck at home, looking for things to do with the kids and fewer places to safely spend leisure dollars, people are flocking to the gardens — many of them for the first time. And we would be foolish to not to realize that the big guys are paying attention.
And this started before the pandemic. PC, I received an unsettling email from Denise, my marketing coordinator. She had been to Walmart and reported that they had a really nice display of very cool/rare houseplants for sale. She proceeded to tell me that they must have a similar display at Lowe’s because people all over the houseplant social media groups she follows were going nuts over them and included a screenshot of a user post of a Raven ZZ plant captioned “Lowe’s has Raven ZZ plants. I repeat, Lowe’s has Raven ZZ plants!!!!!! This is not a drill!” You read that right. Seven exclamation points in that post.
After a quick look at Lowe’s and Walmart’s Instagram feeds, I can see that each of them feature a post within their most recent nine referring to houseplants as “babies” jumping right on that #houseplantparent train pioneered by brands like The Sill and Porch Therapy.
So if Lowe’s and Walmart are creating social media buzz for their houseplants and carrying more than the run-of-the-mill easy-care houseplants, where does that leave us? How does the IGC stay relevant and what can we offer that those places can’t? And more importantly … for those who HAVE found US rather than Walmart or Lowe’s for the new plant addition … how do we stay relevant to their lives once they aren’t spending as much time at home?
For us at Rockledge Gardens, the answer is experience. We’ve found that continually creating fresh local experiences for our community while capitalizing on the experience of our staff is crucial to maintaining relevancy. And it will be crucial to keeping all these new baby gardeners! If you read Garden Center magazine or you’ve attended an industry event or seminar in the last five years or so, I’m not telling you anything new. I don’t have ground-breaking insights to share here but what I can talk about is what we specifically do to stay relevant and how you might do likewise.
1. We capitalize on the experience of our staff using video. Often I’ll walk by our main entrance and greet a customer walking in who will say “I’m here to see the big man!” They’re referring to Steve, an employee of more than 20 years who’s manned our info booth since before the dawn of social media. He’s become a bit of a celebrity for his knowledge and frankness.
But he’s not our only employee with expert advice to dispense and so we’re making efforts to highlight and celebritize other staff through our YouTube channel and IGTV. Staff like Norman. He’s in his late twenties; he’s a burly guy with a big red beard and he’s obsessed with flowers, particularly roses. In one of my favorite videos we’ve done so far, Norman, in all his manly glory, delicately shows our viewers how to harvest flower seeds to propagate what’s already in their gardens. What sets this particular video apart (other than the delightful juxtaposition of Norman’s beard and the lullaby-like background music) is that we’re not trying to sell anything. In fact, if they follow Norman’s advice, folks will learn how to harvest their own seeds rather than buying them from us.
But selling isn’t the immediate objective of the video. We are offering something of value, for free, and we’re positioning our staff as experts. How altruistic of us! Don’t you want to shop somewhere staffed with experts who offer advice for free?
2. We create in-person and virtual experiences for our guests, using the experience of our staff. Now that we’ve whetted our audience’s appetite for knowledge from our staff, we invite them in for more in-depth experiences. Social media connects us, but it also keeps us apart, fooling us into thinking we’re up-to-date with all our friends but some deeper part of us knows that we’re only seeing the highlights reel and that human connection happens in real time. In prior years we would host several in-person seminars a week, both paid and free. These days, our events are primarily virtual, both paid and free. But they are always LIVE.
This is crucial because when there are thousands of gardening video tutorials online, the engagement of live events is what will set you and your expert staff apart. For free seminars (like October’s Spooky Plants talk) we host them on Facebook Live and Instagram Live. Anyone can tune in and join the conversation, and they are archived on our page so that anyone can watch them in future. We host paid events (like September’s three-part virtual pollinator series) on Zoom.
Participants receive a gift certificate to the gardens as well as a copy of the recording via email. We want our customers to know (especially the new fledgling gardeners) that we have resources to support them.
3. We welcome those trying to create experiences for their families. By default, our businesses are beautiful. We are the luckiest industry in the world in the age of social media, video content and blogging because there is no shortage of Instagram-worthy content everywhere. For many years we’ve noticed families, recent grads, prom-goers, newly engaged couples and brand-new parents with newborns come to Rockledge Gardens to use it as a backdrop for their photos. And now more than ever, families will want to be photographed in wide open spaces rather than confined studios.
Photographers often message us on Facebook asking if there’s a charge to use the space. We tell them all they need to do is tag us when they post to social media ... that way we can repost and get even more photographers and families to do likewise.
Most often these families come and go without spending a dime on the day they come in for their photo session (nice clothes don’t mix well with dirt). But what happens when those photos get printed? When they’re framed or shared on Facebook and Instagram? Those families think of us. Consciously or unconsciously, we are now a part of their milestones and memories. We are literally framing their captured joy and togetherness.
4. We create opportunities for people to experience community. In my original version of this article I talked about the popularity of our big annual events: our Fairy Garden Festival in May and our Fall Festival in October. These have served to draw thousands to us over a weekend for festive family fun. This year, the Fairy Fest was cancelled entirely and our Fall Festival looked considerably different than it has in years past. Rather than confining the event to one weekend and drawing massive (and unsafe) crowds, this year our Fall Fest lasted the whole month of October with our signature Scarecrow Scavenger Hunt, a pumpkin patch, treat trucks on Thursdays, live music and food trucks on Saturdays, and a free fall-themed photo booth with professional photographers on Sundays.
If you are like me, you’re are craving fall comfort, a change of scenery, and somewhere to take the kids so you don’t lose your mind, but you want to feel safe and your favorite restaurants and movie theaters will not cut it. We IGCs, with our beautiful wide-open spaces, have an opportunity to entwine with the lives of our community and to be there for them when they really need us. We are positioning ourselves as a place to stroll, connect and breathe in the beauty of nature.
5. We actually sell experience. You may be thinking this is all well and good but how does this help my bottom line? Becoming and staying relevant is a long game.
In 2017 we launched a new aspect of our business: weddings. We have the advantage of land to spare and so we were fortunate in the win-win of solving the need to shrink our retail footprint so that our rows look fuller and become more compact and easier to maintain, while creating an entirely new revenue source with the space. Eight thousand square feet of retail space was made over into The Harry and Mary Witte Learning Center (named for our founders), a site for our educational workshops, and to date, more than 125 weddings. We certainly are seeing couples postpone or cancel but we’re also seeing couples who are cancelling with indoor venues and booking with us because we’re 100% outdoors.
The long game begins like this ... we advertise on social media and on sites like The Knot and Wedding Wire, and young local couples reach out to schedule a venue tour. The couple arrives and seven times out of 10 says, “Wow, I drive by here every day and I never knew any of this was back here!” They book their wedding for a year or so in the future and over the course of that year they come back several times to peek at the venue, dream about and plan their wedding, and pick up a few houseplants along the way for their indoor jungle.
The wedding day arrives and 50-120 of their nearest and dearest are invited to our gardens to share in their joy ... many of them are experiencing the gardens for the first time ever and the couple has paid us thousands of dollars for the privilege of bringing all these new potential customers through our doors. After the wedding takes place, we continue to see the couple come in to purchase houseplants or visit our farmers market. Then we learn they’ve bought a house, and they are ready to landscape their yard. They’ve got to talk to Steve or Norman or Victoria, because they trust us. After a year or so we might start to notice a baby bump, then they come with the baby in the stroller. Eventually the little baby is old enough for Little Bugs Club or our Self-Guided Learning tour for families and we begin to reach a generation that hasn’t even been named yet.
So maybe Lowe’s has Raven ZZ plants and maybe Walmart has finally figured out how to be Instagrammable. And our customers may need to go there anyway for toilet paper or wing nuts, but they can’t talk to an expert human about caring for that ZZ plant. And you better believe they are going to take that plant home before they post it, they won’t take photos in the store (overhead fluorescents are not a good look for the ‘gram). We as IGC’s can do what the box stores never can. We can become a member of the family. We’re in all their wedding photos, we’re in the newborn shots, we’re in the family portraits. We are relevant to their lives. It’s a long game, but it’s so worth it.
The author is Managing Director at Rockledge Gardens in Rockledge, Florida.
Garden Center magazine: Why has the Christmas tree industry been so tight for the last few years?
Tim O’Connor: The production of Christmas trees is no different than other agricultural crops. It moves in cycles based on the profitability of the industry. When the industry is profitable, growers plant more. And then at some point, there are too many trees planted and the supply then depresses prices. The only way to get through those cycles when the supply is working against you is to plant less and to reduce the supply back to a level that’s profitable again. But it’s important to remember that Christmas trees have a 10-year cycle … You plant a tree and you’re typically going to be eight, 10 years away from harvest.
GC: What does the supply look like for 2021?
TO: I haven’t had those conversations with growers to know if 2021 will start to show us if more trees will be available. So, I can’t say that it will be a lot better in terms of the tightness of supply. But at some point in the near future, it will loosen up a little bit because trees have been planted. It just may be two or three more years before that really starts to kick in.
GC: We read that growers are only able to supply about 80% of their demand. Is that still true?
TO: I don’t know if that’s accurate, it may be accurate for some growers. In the wholesale side of the business, every grower has pretty much sold every tree that they could. But they are turning away some customers and are not able to give a 100% of what they’d like since it is a tight supply. I think what should be emphasized, however, is that even in this tight supply situation, the industry in America has never ran out of trees. One grower may sell out of trees but somebody else still has trees in that area. So while the supply has been tight, consumers have been able to buy trees, and we have sold between 25 and 30 million each year.
GC: What’s the first thing garden centers should consider when ordering?
TO: The first thing is, they want to find a supplier and establish a long-term relationship because that’s what’s been most important to growers. As I talk to growers about how they’re handling their tight supply situation, they make it clear that they’re going to take care of their good customers. The longstanding accounts will get trees and they’re going to cut back the more questionable ones.
GC: When is the best time to start ordering trees?
TO: It’s typically spring. And I think every grower does it differently. But most growers, particularly in this recent period, want a deposit payment. They want to know an order is firm. When they make a commitment to a buyer, they want to know the buyer’s going to follow through because they don’t want to turn down other buyers if that buyer changed their mind.
GC: How should IGCs ensure their Christmas tree purchasing success?
TO: Well, depending on what types of trees garden centers want in terms of varieties, they might have to have more than one supplier — like one from the East, because they can’t grow the same trees in Oregon and North Carolina, for example. So, depending on what the garden center is trying to offer, they may want to consider more than one supplier.
At Beaver Bark Gift & Garden Center, one motto reigns supreme: Go for the cute. According to Jennifer Medford, marketing manager for the Richland, Washington-based IGC, the best-selling animal planters are typically quirky, fun and above all, cute. Sloths, elephants, pigs, dogs, cats — you name it — have all been very popular planter choices amongst consumers. Medford says the sloth planter is an extremely sought-after option because it is so unique, and it naturally draws the eye of curious customers.
“It depends on what kind of plants customers are getting, but we’re basically a one-stop shop. You can get your houseplants and your outdoor plants, and we offer little pots and medium-sized pots,” Medford says.
Animal planters in the small- to medium-sized range sell very well because they’re typically used for houseplants and succulents, which are especially popular now as people spend more time in their homes, she says.
“A lot of customers seem to like the really cute ones, and plants on the cheaper side. We usually sell a lot more of the smaller planters than we do the larger ones,” Medford says. The animal planters at Beaver Bark also come in a range of different materials, and they offer everything from ceramics to terra-cotta.
“We have a cute little llama planter right now. It’s terra-cotta; it’s got some interesting designs on it. It’s a lot of fun,” Medford says.
Local, paw-friendly environments
At Perino’s Garden Center, Tucker Bantom, general manager, says their most popular animal planters and statues pay homage to its home state of Louisiana, where local critters provide inspiration in the garden.
“The cats sell a thousand times better than the dogs. And then of course I’m in pelican country, pelican being the state bird here. So, pelicans are my high seller — I’d say it’s neck and neck with the pelicans and the cats,” Bantom says.
Bantom says the concrete, 6- to 8-inch pot planters are the most popular, which are paired with mixed succulent planters on the floor. To show them off, Bantom keeps one or two display planters filled with plants on a table, and then places the rest of the planters underneath. Customers are welcome to buy one of the pre-planted pots or choose their own.
“Sales are off the charts. Fantastic. We also do animal doormats, animal door hangers, animal bowls, animal beds … I mean, you name it, we do it,” Bantom says.
He attributes the popularity of animal planters and other products due to the pandemic and keeps these products toward the front of the store, although he’s currently low on inventory. For IGCs that want to venture into this category, Bantom says they should stick with popular SKUs and increase inventory little by little as the sales dictate.
“You know, people are at home with the pets and they come to the garden center to get something for themselves and then see something for the pet as well,” he says.
For Perino’s, finding and offering the right products is a “blended interest,” Bantom says, because most of the employees have pets and are interested in the different décor or pet products on display. The IGC itself is very pet-friendly, and four-legged friends can always expect dog treats when they come in. (Editor’s note: Head back to page 16 and check out some of the IGC’s furry friends).
Pets also serve as a selling point for Cahoon Nursery & Garden Center, says Dana Corrigan, store merchandiser. Located in Westlake, Ohio, the IGC offers an array of sentimental and whimsical animal décor. Items like natural concrete dog statues and memorial stepping stones (for cats and dogs) tend to be very popular with customers.
“We really kind of mix it up here. We make little vignettes around the nursery with the décor in them. We do tend to keep the dog statues in one place, though, because that would get confusing. We probably have access to about 30 different dog breeds and we usually have about 20 on display,” she says.
Cahoon’s also offers hanging décor like hummingbirds, dragonflies, butterflies and birds that can be used to adorn fences with a colorful pop or rustic hue. They also offer décor items that can appeal to birders.“
We have some bird stuff in metal décor and in movable, mobile-type stakes. One thing that was a big seller for us was the garden stakes of owls and birds of varying ‘personalities,’ shall we say? They move in the wind and those are pretty fun,” Corrigan says.
At Cahoon’s, 2020 general décor sales increased more than usual due to renewed gardening interest.
“I think mostly it’s people just decorating their gardens or having some sort of memorial to specific dogs or cats. That seems to be an ongoing thing. But everyone probably paid a little more attention this summer because everybody’s home so much,” Corrigan says.
South of the border designs
On the West Coast, many items are in high demand, says Linda Westler, office manager and pottery buyer for Green Thumb Nursery in San Marcos, California.
Green Thumb offers pots in an assortment of hand-painted Mexican red clay, Talavera-style and ceramic. The high-fired, brightly colored Talavera pots tend to be pricier because of their artisanal quality and can often be more expensive because of the hand-brushed strokes. Many of these animal planters have unique and eye-catching patterns painted on them.
“The Talavera probably have a bigger assortment and we display those together because it’s just such an impact when you come in and it’s so bright and colorful and cheerful that people always are drawn towards that,” Westler says.
However, the pandemic has caused a supply chain roadblock for the IGC, and inventory has been quite low. It’s hard to keep up with the rush of consumer demand when merchandise is scarce, she says.
“I have one vendor that does a bunch of a different terra-cotta figurines, like bunnies and cats, and I have not been able to get those at all in the last four months or so because they are manufactured in Mexico,” Westler says.
One of its popular items — a 13-inch quail planter with chicks around the border that sells for under $20 — won’t be replenished any time soon because of the inventory shortage.
As for the rest of the pottery, Westler displays the ceramic pots on a shelf in a designated section. The Mexican pottery is hand-painted, which helps color coordinate the area and draw the wandering eye of a customer, she notes. They don’t usually display plants in the pots, save for the occasional 2-inch cacti to give people ideas. As Westler puts it, they have “high interest, but low merchandise.”
“We’re twice as busy as we normally are because people are home, and they want to do something in their yard. I mean, we order and then I have to go through and order it again and again. We’ve been busy, but it’s a good thing,” Westler says.