The earthy smell of soil warming in springtime sends green thumbs and greenhorn gardeners alike to seed racks and seedling displays. If your store isn't stocked with even a small assortment of organic herbs, natural fertilizers and pesticides, hand tools and other gardening goodies, you might be missing a great sales opportunity.
Customers will appreciate the convenience of being able to find natural lawn and garden products where they regularly shop. If your store has what they want, they can forgo the often-overwhelming searches through large garden centers. Peggy Williams, floral supervisor, at the Whole Foods Market in Vienna, Va., says, "I can't compete price-wise with someone who is buying tractor-trailer loads [of garden product], but [customers] come here to do their grocery shopping anyway, and they will pay an extra 25 or 50 cents more for convenience."
Williams changes her garden section every year. Typically she includes seeds; locally grown herbs, annuals and shrubs; garden implements; and yard statuary. She competes with the surrounding nurseries and garden centers by stocking what her customers want.
"I think I've developed my own clientele; they come here because they know they're going to get what they're looking for."
So what are customers looking for? Organic seeds are big sellers, so are natural fertilizers and pesticides. Tools, seedlings and other items for the organic gardener can round out your offerings.
"There's huge interest in organic seeds," Williams says. "I use Seeds of Change because the seeds are organic, and they're not collected in the wild."
Seeds of Change, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based company, offers only 100 percent certified-organic, open-pollinated, non-GM and chemical-free seeds and seedlings.
Natural fertilizers are sometimes hard for consumers to find in conventional garden centers. Neptune's Harvest, of Gloucester, Mass., is one of several companies offering a line of organic fertilizers.
"With organics, you're getting enzymes, macro- and micronutrients, trace elements, amino acids, vitamins and naturally occurring growth hormones," says Ann Molloy, Neptune's sales director. "So you're really feeding the soil and making the plant healthy so it is less susceptible to insect and disease problems, unlike conventional nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium fertilizers, where that's about all you're getting."
Neptune's best-selling product is the odor-free Fish/Seaweed Blend Fertilizer. "Because of the cold temperature we use [during processing], we don't destroy any of the enzymes or heat-sensitive nutrients. Emulsions are cooked, so they destroy those," Molloy says.
For a small garden section, Molloy recommends a starter pack. "We have a display rack with 10 cases on it. It is a predetermined setâwe supply more of the better sellers and less of the slower sellers. The free-standing rack has a literature holder and a nice header that says 'Organic Fertilizers.'"
In addition to looking for alternatives to synthetic fertilizers, customers may also want effective natural pesticides for their summertime weed and bug battles.
Bioganic Safety Brands Inc., of Franklin, Tenn., offers a number of natural pesticides developed during a decade of research. Edward Grindstaff, president and chairman of the board, says the company used combinations of plant oils, such as eugenol from cloves, to develop extremely effective pesticides. "We have a line of aerosol insecticides that are highly efficacious, and they leave no pesticide residue. We also have a line of herbicides that provides immediate knockdown. Within two hours we can knock down and kill any weed. We also have insect repellants that are as good as any of the mainstream brands you'll find in the marketplace."
Bioganic Weed and Grass Killer is a natural, glyphosate-free alternative to such products as Monsanto's Roundup. This spray kills plants on contact, "including some of the very tough vines like poison ivy," Grindstaff says.
The company's products, which have received the Good Housekeeping Seal, do cost a bit more than conventional chemical-based products. "We're only running around a 15 percent to 30 percent premium, which we've found to be very reasonable for the types of benefits we offerâsafety and efficacy," Grindstaff says.
Almost every conventional lawn and garden product has a natural counterpart, including "weed and feeds" for turf. Corn gluten meal is a pre-emergent weed suppressor and slow-release fertilizer. A by-product of the corn wet-milling process, corn gluten meal prevents all types of seeds from germinating, but is safe for people, pets and microbes. Jack Bates, founder and chairman of Down to Earth Distributors in Eugene, Ore., says its Corn Weed Blocker not only kills emerging weed seedlings but also stimulates soil microbes and fungi, something conventional weed-and-feeds don't do.
"For people who are committed to using organics, it is a very effective tool," Bates says. "But people need to be aware that this has a very specific effective use. If you are using it for weeding purposes, you have to realize that any perennial weed that has a root system or a rhizome isn't going to be affected. It is only effective against seeds as they germinate."
If you have the space in your store, carrying hand tools can inspire some impulse purchases. The Earth Bud-Eze toolsâa trowel, cultivator and V-hoeâare bound to grab attention. "The ergonomic design of Earth Bud-Eze keeps the user's hand and wrist in a neutral position, while the soft rubber arm cuff provides extraordinary leverage for working the soil," says Pat Greene, president and CEO of the Forest Lake, Minn.-based manufacturer. "They allow you to use your upper body musclesâyour stronger, larger muscles. They take the strain off the muscles in your hand and wrist," she says. Although many stores devote the front exterior for the garden center, you can find success even in much smaller spaces.
"I believe if you carve out a small section and focus on outdoor concentrates, some herbicides and repellants, you'll have a very strong product offering in this category," Grindstaff says. "I'd say no more than eight or 10 items, and you can meet the majority of the natural consumer's needs, [because] it is very hard to find [these items] in the mainstream stores."
Dena Nishek, a Master Gardener, is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 95, 100
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 95