May 24, 2002
Retail trends in water gardening

By Linda Erskine

Fad: a craze, a peculiar notion or idiosyncrasy.
Trend: a general direction and tendency (esp. of events, fashion or opinion, etc.), bend or turn away in a specified direction, to be chiefly directed; have a general and continued tendency.
Trendsetter: a person who leads the way in fashion, etc.
Trend setting: establishing trends or fashions.

There are trends and then there are fads. Fads, by definition, are those tangible items that explode on the retail scene, encapsulate the market only to disappear as quickly only a year or two, or in some cases as short as a few months, later. A trend, by the same definition, is an item or activity that starts as a "must-have" and takes on its own direction, creating for itself its own market.

     Take the toy industry, for example. When Ty first introduced the beanie baby about five years ago, they were the hot item for any child, and even adult, to have, to collect and even to sell. Now, five short years later, beanie babies have just as quickly fallen out of favour and collectors and retailers who bought hundreds, thousands and even millions of these cute beanbag toys, are now trying to unload their stock on an uninterested public.

     The opposite side of the coin is the video game industry, which, because of great positioning, marketing and the emergence of new games and operating systems, is the classic example of a trend that has held onto an increased market share. Sony Playstation and Nintendo cater to a wider range of video aficionados, from the up-and-coming video junkie to the sophisticated audience who grew up on the first-generation Atari games.

     The largest market share for the interactive video market is and remains the late 20- and 30-somethings - the same market for which "gardening" now holds such a charm. Both industries are recreation-driven, and customers allocate a certain amount of their disposable income for these activities.

     Matt Horn of Matterhorn Nursery in Spring Valley, New York, prides himself on keeping abreast of trends, particularly in the gardening and retailing industry. Water gardening, he says, has proven its staying power in the industry and has, in fact, established its own niche market. Part of the ability to establish its own niche is in the marketing of the activity itself and water gardening has had many opportunities, both within the trade and through features in consumer magazines and garden shows. A portion of this marketing initiative comes directly from the individual garden centre, and with attention to the latest techniques, products and ideas in indoor and outdoor displays, information booths as well as a well-informed staff, water gardening can become a viable part of any garden centre, landscape construction or maintenance company.

     The first rule, says Horn, is to be willing to accept change and react in terms of service, product and merchandising. "Change is inevitable and healthy," and by not being in tune and willing to change with the trends, a business will lose customers. This means the garden centre must constantly be on the look-out for the latest in pumps, liners, containers, plants and pond life and be well-versed in the product to relay information to their customers.

     Information is the one area where the independent garden centres excel, so take advantage of that, says Horn, admitting that while most times independents can't compete with the larger box stores on price, by giving customers the information and the tie-in products they need for a healthy plant, they often gain a happy and repeat customer. Train your staff and arm them with the information customers will want. "Home Depot sells water lilies (bareroot) for $5," Horn comments. For their $5, customers receive the bareroot water lily but are not given enough information on how to grow the plant or what products the plant requires for optimal health and growth.

     "If they had come to the garden centre for the water lily in the first place, they would have the right info and a beautiful plant that they could enjoy right away." The plant that cost $5 at the Home Depot normally ends up costing up to $50 when fertilizer, soil, etc. are brought into the mix.

     The independent garden centre is also the ideal venue for in-store seminars on water gardening techniques, new ideas and products. You or your staff can run these seminars, or you can also pull in resources and contacts from the industry to talk about more specialized water gardening activities.

     Hand in hand with information is how the garden centre displays its products. Display is everything, says Horn. The trend in display merchandising leans towards more "depart¬≠mentalized" garden centres, creating different areas for each division. Matterhorn Nursery itself has a "village" mentality, with a number of pavilions in which these departments are housed.

     "You are doing the water gardening division an injustice if you're not going to go the whole nine yards," he says. Create vignettes of a variety of pond sizes and styles, and have nearby all of the plants, accessories rocks and pond creatures used in that display. Everything has to be in reach and labelled. You must make a sincere investment in materials, staff, benching, displays, time and floor space.

     Over the last five years, Horn has seen many trends emerge in pond style, products and incorporating different elements into a water garden. Instead of looking for a simple pond construction with a few rocks, well-placed plants and a few koi to add interest, consumers now lean to a more personal style, with the Japanese water garden one of the most popular. Another trend is the incorporation of ornaments into the garden, in particular, bridges. These bridges can be placed over moving water or take up residence over a "dry" bed. Use a variety of these bridges in the garden centre's overall display design. "You have to spur people's interests," Horn says. Matterhorn custom builds a variety of bridges and constantly displays them throughout the water garden pavilion and the main garden centre.

     Containers and tub gardening are also gaining in acceptance as homeowners look for more compact water gardens. Apartment dwellers, condo- and even estate-owners, with these contained water gardens, can create a watery retreat on their patio or porch. "People just like to have the effect of water, whether it's moving or not," and be able to use fish in a small, maintenance-friendly environment, he says.

     This leads to another trend - introducing fish and pond critters into the water garden. While incorporating fish into the water garden is definitely not a new idea, the sale of pond critters, food and accessories is, and it is one area the garden centre and/or landscape company should not ignore. "Whether it's turtles, ducks or geese, people want to buy them so Matterhorn has been importing wildlife," Horn notes, adding that they stock a wide variety of mallard ducks. He does not, however, recommend this for everyone and often indicates both the pros and cons to his customers and other garden centres that are thinking about getting into this sector.

     A little off-centre from the regular "fish" department (but equally important) is the sale of fish food, which Matterhorn has handled quite efficiently with the development of fish food dispensing machines, which allow customers to come fill and re-fill their recyclable containers. "I was on a PPA tour and saw packaged fish food left out in the rain. This is not the way to sell fish food," he comments.

     Other trends that have emerged and show great promise for Matterhorn and other nurseries lay in the ornament category, in particular - fountains. While it is good to include fountains in your indoor and outdoor water garden displays, Horn notes that he has had the best results when he moves these fountains into Matterhorn's main gift shop. "We saw that people did not want to take the walk to the water garden display," he says, noting that most displayed fountains sold almost immediately. Horn also notices a rise in the last four or five years in the number of requests for hidden water features and geysers, especially in Japanese-style gardens.

     While interesting fountains, containers and pond critters are practical accessories and items to have in your water gardening inventory, just as important are those items geared for good pond construction, maintenance and safety. Garden centres must stock up on the essentials such as pond liners, preforms, pumps, UV stabilizers, chemicals and safety features. "You need to sell everything - waterproof plug connectors, bottom drains for filtration, and no-clog pumps with open impellers. UV sterilizers are very big right now because it's the only way to get rid of algae immediately. People do not want the algae but they also want instant results," says Horn.

     Brand recognition is the next step in the quest for market dominance in the retail scene. Horn is a firm believer in branding and selling yourself. "We sell Matterhorn Nursery and that's what people come in here to buy. We're not here to reinvent the pump," he says, admitting that most manufacturers can handle the creation of a good product. "But, I think people do a poor job on certain marketing aspects." Matterhorn Nursery sells its own brand of PVC liner, which they buy from a company in Canada, and has created instant recognition for other products through their different gardening guides, catalogues (including one on water gardening) and other publications, as well as through their hands-on seminars and tours.

     For those garden centres and landscape companies that do not want to invest a large amount of time and material into a water gardening division, Horn suggests teaming up with a local business to ship in plant material and accessories for a few select customers. "I'm not saying this is the ideal scenario, but this company does not want to be in the water gardening business. At the same time though he doesn't want to turn down business," he says, referring to one business in the area that contacts Matterhorn for special orders.

     Landscape construction and grounds maintenance contractors can also benefit from the water gardening trend and expand their portfolio to include pond installation and maintenance. Businesses have developed their own trends by creating package installation deals. One such package may offer 5 x 10 liner, pump, rocks and plants for $900, while a smaller "tub garden" with selection of plants may sell for $49.99. Matterhorn does not however offer packages such as these. "We're more in the trend of customizing everything. We don't sell boxed liners. Everything is custom-cut on large rolls," Horn says, referring to their pond liner.

     A large part of Matterhorn's promotion is handled by its service department, which goes out and maintains the ponds they create. "Taking over the maintenance of a pond built by someone else causes problems because many are not constructed properly," he says. Once they take over the maintenance contract, the onus is on them to correct the problem or liability issues may arise. There is, however, a viable business both in the maintenance, construction and renovation of ponds, which says Horn, has seen renewed interest with homeowners looking to take out existing swimming pools in favour of a water garden.

     Whatever the activity - retailing, construction or maintenance, water gardening will not go by the wayside in favour of the next, more exciting gardening craze. More than 10 years as a gardening "trend" will attest to its strength. And, with more and more disposable dollars being spent on outdoor activities, water gardening has created the perfect niche market that delivers a punch to all senses of fun, frolic and financial viability.