Garden vendors weather the economic winter

business update

Staff Staff, Jenny Heinzen York, October 1, 2009

Garden products vendors are faring relatively well amidst the economic downturn, due largely to the huge popularity of the overall trend toward outdoor living. But all is definitely not coming up roses, so they have been forced to buckle down and adapt their businesses to the new, colder financial climate.

Gary Raines, national sales manager for Esschert Design, said the home side of the business is much more challenged than the lawn and garden side. Tom Gardner, Emissary's recently named national sales manager, and Jerry Cunningham of Napa Home & Garden echoed that sentiment.

"The garden aspect of our business has remained more constant in the economic downturn" Gardner said. "The reason for that is that garden centers in particular are witnessing the 'staycation' effect. People haven't stopped making their backyards beautiful, and they can be on vacation by walking out their kitchen doors."

"Garden has held up better than other product categories," Cunningham said. "Our business is tied to the garden market or to the home market, and garden centers have been doing relatively better than furniture stores or designers whose work is tied to the construction or selling of houses."

Bianca Orlandi of Orlandi Statuary, who does about 80% of her business in garden, said, "For Orlandi, garden has remained strong, but the order amounts have decreased," she said. "Customers are way more price-conscious and order-conscious than they ever have been. They are ordering, but smaller size orders, and they are checking every single price to make sure they have a customer that will purchase that retail level."

Retailers are indeed buying differently, Gardner agreed, with smaller, but more frequent orders, especially over Emissary's e-commerce Web site. "Our whole paradigm is shifting," he said. "The troubles with the economy have brought an end to any doubts about that."

To combat the economic weakness, companies are taking a close look at their businesses and product lines and looking for the niches where they can distinguish themselves.

"At the higher end, it's a tougher sell," Cunningham said. "So, as a company, we've been developing a wider range of products at lower price points."

"We have to be more conscious — in terms of product — about our quality," Gardner said, noting that when Emissary was founded 30 years ago, there were relatively few importers in the market. "Now, most of the product is imported, so we have to be more conscious about customer service and the level of the product that we bring in because there's much more competition."

The green story also plays a role in the health of the outdoor living business, he said. "The green trend in general is going to be good for garden and outdoor," he said. "People are becoming aware that we have a finite resource in the Earth, and for that reason, people are tending to take care of their own little corner of it."

"What we're really trying to do — we're really going to invest in our product line, and instead of being all-encompassing, we are looking to pull out items that are unique and differentiated and build programs around those," Raines said.

Napa is reaching out to new markets, beyond the gift home furnishings realm, including the Independent Garden Center show, the casual furniture market and even a show geared toward supermarket floral shops. Esschert has also found success at the garden center show, as well as the True Value Hardware market.

Emissary's strongest product category in terms of outdoor accessories has been garden seats, Gardner said, because designers in particular have latched onto them as a new medium and as functional art.

Orlandi said functional or multifunctional pieces are key for her company right now. "For example, an urn that you can plant in and then in the winter cover it with a finial top so it's then a decorative piece." She also said bright colors are very hot.

Raines said Esschert has had success with its line of patterned watering cans, and recently debuted a line of aged metal products, including planters and birdcages, that has been working well.

"It's unique, it's a differentiated product," he said. "And we don't have to reach down to promotional pricing on it. People are seeing the value and style and differentiation and are willing to pay the price for it so they can make their stores unique too."

Looking ahead, the vendors expressed measured optimism.

"We expect to have a very good year (in 2010) because of new product initiatives," he said, noting a new line of gel burners — called Firelights — that use an eco-friendly bio-ethanol that can be used indoors or out.

"Our best bet for the balance of the year is relatively flat. For 2010, we're expecting to have increases. Buyers are very conservative with what they're doing," Raines said. "We all (in the garden business) started off in the first four months of the year in pretty good shape because of good orders placed late last year. Then, things tailed off because people weren't moving their inventory. Now, they are being conservative on the front side — they are optimistic, but are not going overboard when they can always place subsequent reorders."

"Things are slowly getting somewhat better, but they are not great," Napa's Cunningham said, noting that for garden vendors the fourth quarter is typically slow, even in a good year.

Orlandi agreed that the rest of 2009 looks to be slower than in years past, but "first half of 2010 we project will pick up with the start of a new year ... everyone is always more hopeful at the beginning of a new year."

And this is all part of business, Gardner said.

"Things have gone from January being dismal to a kind of reserved optimism that things are getting better," he said. "We learned in college — Business 101 — that business has cycles and seasons, and for a lot of us, this is the first winter we have had."

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