Seconds to sell

New research on plant shoppers’ behaviors reveals insights into signage, browsing habits and ways to capture more customer attention.


Photo © VAKSMANV | Adobe Stock

As the demographic of garden center shoppers continues to evolve, marketing, signage and the whole customer experience are changing along with the times. To help grower-retailers market to each generation of customers, a new study from The Maumee Valley Growers Association shows some key differences in the shopping habits of different generations.

Last year, with $50,000 in funding from a Specialty Crop Block Grant and consultation from Dr. Bridget Behe at Michigan State University, the Ohio greenhouse association designed a study to determine what retail promotions or strategies growers and retailers can implement to target each generation of plant purchasers. “The whole purpose of this research was to test our suspicions that the buying tendencies and strategies and characteristics of the different generations were slightly different,” says Joe Perlaky, executive director.

The organization set up motion-sensor cameras at five displays in four retail shops in Ohio to observe customers’ shopping behaviors. By recording shoppers who with discrete cameras placed in strategic locations, the stores were able to collect unbiased, objective information on the process of sales.

Some of the questions they explored were:

  • Gender
  • Time it took to purchase
  • How many items were purchased
  • Length of interaction with display
  • Signage

During a 60-day period in May and June of 2021, the cameras captured 10 to 11 data points when shoppers stopped and interacted with plant displays. Data was collected all open hours of all days at Black Diamond in Toledo and Perrysburg, Bostdorff’s in Bowling Green, Klotz Floral Design & Garden in Bowling Green and Wardell’s Garden Center in Waterville.

Illustrations © Tartila | Adobe Stock

Determining the generation of each shopper was somewhat difficult due to masks, but Perlaky made best guesses.

In all, the study captured 10,000 interactions with displays, resulting in 865 sales. Retailers swapped out their signage about every week between no sign at all and signage solely focused on prices, signs featuring the importance of pollinators, the health benefits of houseplants and more. Each location used the same sign design and content.

While the study started with displays containing moderately priced plants at first (around $50-$75), grower-retailers added lower-priced items ($10-$15) to increase interaction within the first week. They also added more color to their displays, which increased traffic about tenfold.

“The interesting thing we had to make a change on in the first week is we intended on putting pots of plants that had higher value,” Perlaky says. “That didn’t work because you need the inexpensive loss leader items. You needed to have something that was worth $10 in there and you did need to have something that had color in there. That worked. We changed that right from the get-go because people are attracted to color and it was that simple.”

Photo © Halfpoint | Adobe Stock

Decisions in seconds

Digging through approximately 900 interactions, Perlaky found that while some customers spent more than a minute checking out the displays and some spent less than two seconds, the majority of shoppers spent 10-15 seconds. Shoppers who did not make a purchase at all took much longer to make a decision than those who did.

“There’s a sweet spot,” Perlaky says, “and the sweet spot was generally in the five- to seven-second time period from the time they picked up a plant, looked at it, examined it and put it down. If they did this within a seven-second period, they either bought it or they didn’t, but most times they bought it. If they held onto it for a longer period of time, that changed.”

In general, the study found that younger shoppers took longer to make a purchase decision, which Perlaky believes is due to post-millennials’ inexperience with shopping for plants and reading plant tags.

On the other end of the spectrum, older shoppers also took a longer time. Perlaky believes this is because experienced plant shoppers often replace plants or look for something particular. But even though older and younger shoppers both took longer to make decisions, older shoppers ultimately decided to purchase more.

When shoppers considered a plant for longer than average, they typically did not make purchases. But when employees noticed shoppers spending a long time at a display and tried to help the potential customer questions, they increased purchases.

Perlaky sees a “golden opportunity” here for store employees to help a customer, noting that staff would often end up walking the undecided customer to a different part of the greenhouse to look at something else. And often, the shopper would circle back around to the display for a second look.

Signs and displays

Out of all sales, the majority were made when pricing signage was displayed (53%). In comparison, environmental signage was the second-most effective (25%), followed by no signage (22%), which came as a bit of a surprise to Behe, who expected to see more sales with environmental signage.

Illustration © Tartila | Adobe Stock

“She was thinking that the environmental signs would have greater sales than the price signs,” Perlaky says. “But that was not the case with us. That was one change we spotted.”

Another surprise was the fact that empty spaces on the bench drew customers to it. Perlaky thinks this is because empty spots imply that someone else liked the options and bought something first. And a decent amount of customers would dig through the display to see if there was a hidden gem in the back.

“That’s one of those things where I’d smile when I’d watch people make the purchase,” he says. “They’d stop and they’d see something was cleared out and they kind of looked left and looked right. Then they started walking into the displays, which were generally on a flat surface. And they went to the back row and I thought, ‘Do you think that they intentionally put the good stuff in the back? That’s the opposite of what growers do. They put the good stuff in front.’ But they had this idea that maybe there was a hidden gem back there that no one had spotted.”

Extending the season

Not surprisingly, grower-retailers sold more plants in May than June, and customers were shopping differently. Perlaky says this is often because shoppers are looking for something specific in June, whereas in May, they’re starting off their garden from scratch and buying whatever looks good. Stressing that the selling season isn’t over in June, he recommends that retailers resist the urge to discount plants. “You’re leaving money on the table,” he says.

Instead, talk to customers more in June and see what they’re looking for to help increase sales. “Maybe some of the plants you bought in May died or maybe they thrived, and you want more of them, so you go back a second time in June,” Perlaky says. “So we’re hoping that we can convince growers not to automatically put discounts on them in June.”

Maumee Valley Growers has warned against discounting plants for a long time, according to Perlaky. “That’s a challenge that the floriculture industry has and that’s called ‘tradition,’” he says. “By the first of June, people have a tendency to get tired of watering plants. They’ve been working almost 24/7 for four to six weeks so they’re ready to wind the season down. So what do they do? They try to get rid of stuff. They’ve done this historically and we’re telling them, ‘No, don’t do that. Wait another month until the end of June. The floriculture seems to be extending into June where maybe in years past it wasn’t.”

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