Gearing up for Millennial Consumers

Photo from “How to Market Gardening to Millennials” by the Garden Media Group

Photo from “How to Market Gardening to Millennials” by the Garden Media Group

The horticultural industry is facing a monumental task: finding ways to market itself to the growing Millennial generation.

The industry’s traditional customer base is shrinking, as the 74.9 million Baby Boomers — those aged 51 to 69 — pass away and the smaller group of Generation Xers just cannot fill the shoes of its predecessor. For those generations, gardening has been part of the American Dream: Get married, have a steady career, buy a home with a backyard, raise a family — “create a garden” obviously implied as part of the package.

“Boomers grew up with gardens. They were taught gardening by the Greatest Generation or their grandparents, many of whom were farmers, and so they had a built-in education,” said Bob Dolibois, the former executive vice president of the American Nursery and Landscape Association. “The need to market the industry didn’t exist.”

But the 75.3 million Millennials living in the United States haven’t exactly followed in the footsteps of their forefathers. Many Millennials are living in smaller and more temporary spaces; long-term goals might include buying a condo in the city and traveling around the world. Millennials that do want to buy homes might have been saddled with student loan debt or stricken by underemployment, so they are waiting longer to get married and start families. Whether they buy a home or not, Millennials have more products, experiences, services and information competing for their time and attention than any generation before them, but a 2014 survey found that 53 percent of Millennials were living paycheck to paycheck. (Fortunately, there are some positive signs out there that point to the end of the trend: Millennials have finally begun hitting their 30s, the job market is improving and mortgages are easier to obtain.)

The differences between Baby Boomers and Millennials has spurned some action within the industry. AmericanHort last year started its multi-year “SHIFT” initiative to research how the industry can meet modern consumer expectations. Its findings and solutions will begin to be revealed July 11-14 at the Cultivate 15 conference in Columbus, Ohio.

“The handwriting is on the wall: consumer shopping and lifestyle habits are changing across generations and demographics. We have to be ready. We need to SHIFT our paradigms and behaviors to ensure long-term viability,” states the SHIFT website.

In the meantime, here are just a few suggestions from industry insiders, marketing professionals and others for how the nursery and landscaping can attract Millennials now and in the future.

Connect Gardening to Millennial Values

A photo from Millennial Magazine in an article about Millennial environmentalists protesting deforestation and the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

A photo from Millennial Magazine in an article about Millennial environmentalists protesting deforestation and the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

As a group, Millennials are eco-conscious consumers and supporters of socially responsible companies. They care less about a company’s long-term brand history and more about how each company is working to ensure a greener and better future for individuals and the world. Millennial values include many movements and causes tied or connected to gardening: environmental conservation, sustainability, food quality and processes, and mental and physical health.

That means talking about those issues and focusing on plants and landscapes that can benefit pollinator health, have a low environmental impact and allow for greater personal sustainability. Herbs, vegetables, fruit trees and native plants are especially attractive to Millennials. “Twenty-nine percent of Millennials want to make the world a better place and want to contribute to the greater good through gardening,” states the free e-book How to Market Gardening to Millennials, published by the Garden Media Group.

One benefit of marketing to Millennials is that they openly share their opinions and values and carry a lot of influence over other consumers.

“Millennials already have immense spending power. Even though this group is younger than the ‘average’ gardener, Millennials are influencing other buyers,” states the e-book. “Millennials are big talkers, digitally and in person. They constantly influence their parents, friends, relatives and coworkers on what brands and products to buy.”

Ensure Successful Experiences And Make it Easier

Gardening is an authentic, healthy, therapeutic and meditative escape from the busy digital worlds in which we largely live. There’s something intrinsically rewarding — perhaps moreso now than ever — about making direct contact with the earth and working with it to grow something from nearly nothing. Gardening inspires us and teaches us to be the creators and cultivators of our environments. And great landscaping creates improved experiences for both relaxation and social events such as backyard cookouts, outdoor wine nights and family-friendly parties with neighbors and friends.

The benefits aren’t just intrinsic; they are scientific. The summation of benefits gardening can have on the mind, body and spirit make it an enticing experience and hobby for Millennials to embrace. Mentally, gardening reminds us of how connected we are to nature and other living organisms, and of how remarkable the mechanics of nature are. Physically, gardening helps reduce stress and improve fitness. Emotionally, gardening builds self-esteem, reduces depression and improves mental health.

The problem is that gardening isn’t a simple hobby for Millennials to start, at least, not yet, Dolibois said.

“Sometimes you can’t necessarily control the timing of it. Things happen out in the garden and they need to be tended to,” Dolibois said, adding that gardening must become easier. “The real prize for the wholesale plant industry is going to come when we’ve made gardening an elective hobby as much as possible.”

One way to ensure that the gardening experience is successful is for growers and sellers to focus on marketing plants that are multi-season performers and bred for success in the garden. Low-maintenance dwarf plants that can thrive in smaller spaces can also lead to more Millennial successes.

“There is going to have to be a higher success rate from the get-go for Millennials. They want things that they are going to be successful with,” Dolibois said. “Plants that bloom for two weeks out of the year and that’s it, that won’t constitute success for a Millennial. And unfortunately, some of the plants that are out there are stunning in their initial bloom cycle, but after that, they aren’t attracting or they disappear.”

Educate, Educate, Educate

Millennials grew up with the Internet, so they are accustomed to having a whole world of information available to them at a moment’s notice. But having access to so much information has had its downsides: Millennials have short attention spans. They want information immediately, and they want it to be both both simple and comprehensive. Millennials don’t learn information; they download it. They don’t memorize facts; they store them.

Unfortunately, we did not grow up with much hands-on gardening experience or knowledge; it wasn’t a part of our educational systems. So Millennials may not know how to identify how much water, sun or space a plant needs, whether a plant is getting too much water or too much sun, when to prune a plant, what plants work well together, or what kinds of bugs and diseases are destroying their plants.

There are a lot of ways the industry and individual nurseries can engage Millennials through education: YouTube videos, Instagram how-tos, in-house workshops, blogs, answering questions via social media sites, more informative labels and greater use of QR codes.

“It’s going to be incumbent on the nursery industry,” Dolibois said. “We are really dealing with an uninformed person who is buying plants for fashion, or they are buying vegetable plants to maybe get some tomatoes. And they are already drowning in information, so they don’t want that. They want wisdom.”

Education also needs to center around plant benefits, not just the plants themselves.

“Then, they can quit looking at the ‘plant in the pot’ as a commodity, but see rather what the plant can do for them,” said SHIFT’s Mark Foertmeyer, chair of the AmericanHort board of directors and owner of Foertmeyer and Sons Greenhouse. “That’s the real product. It’s a really important shift, and I’m really excited about it.”

Allow consumers to create customized Do-It-Yourself kits.

Millennials are used to seeing something on TV and having enough information available in front of them to recreate it themselves at home. They learn and empower themselves by seeing and by doing.

“They are big DIY-ers,” states the Garden Media Group. “Millennials want to DIY with their own edibles.”

But the garden and landscaping industries haven’t yet reached the full potential of the DIY movement. Dolibois envisions that the future of the nursery and landscaping industries lies in the creation of customized gardening kits, similar to the kits Container Store customers can create online for do-it-yourself home improvement projects.

“At the Container Store, say someone wants to create a closet space, you design the closet online, the website software asks you all the relevant questions — size, is there a door, windows, what the walls are made of — and you choose what you want and you save your design. Then you go into your store and the clerk there has a tablet and says, ‘what did you save your design under?’ and they look at the design and they might fine-tune it with you. Then you pay, and your materials are all ready for you — they put them together. You’ve got the shelves custom-sized, you’ve got the brackets, they throw in the nuts and bolts and screws and everything that you need,” Dolibois said.

In the garden center, customizable kits could be available according to size; location — around the mailbox, under a tree, front yard in full sun; values — sustainable habitats, organic foods, pollinator health, water conservation, energy efficiency; etc.

“If you go into a garden center, my notion is, you should be able to do the same thing. You should be able to say, ‘I want to put plants around a mailbox. It’s in the sun, I’ve got 2 hours to do it.’ And 15 minutes later, there is someone pulling a cart to your pickup truck and they are unloading the right amount of plants, the right soil, the right amount of mulch. You won’t have a 10-pound bag of something you probably only need three scoops of.”

Partner with apartment complexes to create active community gardens

Another approach to reaching apartment-dwelling Millennials might be providing leadership and on-site support to urban community gardens.

Community gardens have many benefits for Millennials. They provide a platform for forging new friendships with neighbors, a natural community area in their urban environments and spaces for sustainable and organic food growing — all while allowing them to focus on health and wellness.

“Schedule information sessions about composting, crop rotation, water conservation, pest management, and planting seasons,” recommends one how-to guide.

Community gardens are becoming more and more popular thanks to national policies and initiatives, such as the 2015 Global Soil Security Symposium’s movement to develop an international soil security policy. Scientists, policy experts and investors at the symposium recommended a goal of establishing community gardens in 90 percent of primary schools by 2020.

Design more interactive, shareable social media experiences

Create shareable experiences and design interactive social media opportunities to reach Millennials.

Create shareable experiences and design interactive social media opportunities to reach Millennials.

Companies that harvest creative interactions through social media are likely to be successful in marketing to Millennials.

“Millennials are driven by experiences and opportunities to create memories they can share and attract attention. They will even pay more if it means they’ll have a ‘share-able’ experience,” states the Garden Media Group.

Share-able experiences might include asking Millennials for their opinions on new products or trends, creating fun and quick plant-focused quizzes, hosting upcycling or repurposing garden art workshops or exhibits, offering paint-your-own-pot type date night or happy hour activities, creating YouTube how-to videos, encouraging Millennials to write reviews on products and experiences, or starting garden and yard-focused Instagram hashtag campaigns.

Millennials also want to stand out from the crowd and are drawn to products that are one-of-a-kind, handmade or otherwise embolden their individual personalities, so the Garden Media Group recommends that nurseries and landscaping companies “carry as many colors, patterns and design variations of a product as you can."