15 October 2010

Selling Spring

Last week I received my “Guide to Winter Warmth” issue of the L. L. Bean catalog. Since moving into a new apartment a couple months ago, much of our mail still arrives with yellow forwarding labels from the post office or it is addressed to someone else entirely. Curious whether the catalog was for me or the previous tenants, I flipped the glossy booklet over to check the address label. Sure enough, it was for me. No forwarding label. How do they do that?

Anyway, next to the address was another interesting trick of direct marketing. Right there, in a bold, dot-matrix-type font, the sales folks from L. L. Bean wanted me to know:

-8 F
Last winter, this was the
coldest temperature recorded in
MADISON

Seriously? In some circles, pointing out facts like that means taking the risk someone will spit at you.

Alas, it’s an asskicker economy and people need to make a living. At L. L. Bean, that means selling coats and sweaters. And, I suppose, that also means selling the idea that winter is coming hard and fast. Bundle up.

Having taken up this project to explore the world of Midwestern gardening, I couldn’t help wondering how the change in seasons would impact the business of gardening. How, exactly, would a nursery or garden center cope with fall and the approach of winter?




If you’re in the business of hawking fleece-lined gloves and wool pullovers, the fear-of-frostbite approach will probably serve you well. Customers can hope that it will not get too cold this year, but that hope does not figure prominently in an ad campaign for buffalo-checked flannel.

On the other hand, in garden retail it seems that hope would be all you have during the fall and winter months. Selling people on the promise of spring should be pretty easy and effective. Right?

I put my theory to Karen Johannsen, co-owner of Johannsen’s Greehouse on Madison’s west side. She gave me an honest and upfront view of the retail garden business in fall. I get the impression that she is honest and upfront with just about everything.

“October’s not our slowest month,” she said. “But, the first two weeks of November, January, February, and March are pretty ugly.”

Really? I thought people would be itching to look past the cold and plan for spring.

“You could sell a ton more [tulip bulbs] in May, when they’re blooming.” Karen clearly understands why people want to buy tulips in spring. She sympathizes. But, her tone conveys a bit of exasperation.

Tulip, daffodil, and crocus bulbs are available in fall. You have to plant them now. Come spring, you are way, way too late.

“So, you just tell people to go home and mark your calendar. And maybe they’ll come back. Maybe they won’t.” Apparently, during the colder seasons, hope keeps the garden retailers going more than it does the gardener.

To hear Karen tell it, gardeners forgo the hope of spring in an almost comical example of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But when things do come back and we can see all the colorful blossoms, we want them. We want ‘em bad and we want ‘em now.

“We want instant,” she says, rapidly slapping the back of her right hand into the palm of her left.

“There is a plant called an Iris. You have to plant them in August or September. You put them in now and they bloom in June. And they’re absolutely gorgeous. Buuut they don’t always bloom the first year….” She pauses.

Karen is wry woman and I can tell this story will have a rather sharp point.

“People don’t garden that way anymore. That’s way too long. But[!], we sell a ton of that same plant in May, potted, for four times as much [as the bulbs would have cost]… when it’s blooming.”

Again, when it’s blooming.

She chuckles and sighs at the same time. “We want everything fast.”



There is no way around the fact that we have to wait for tomatoes and cucumbers. But, if we give into the need for spring now and pick up some amaryllis bulbs, we could save ourselves the desperate, pricey search for fresh flowers in April and May. Everyone will be waiting for the blossoms. But you could be the first to have them in your yard. Where is that gotta-have-it-first consumerism that seems to pervade the rest of America’s spending?

I don't know. Somewhere between preparing for the cold and simply pushing ahead with work and family, I guess we miss the opportunity to get a jump on spring.

Maybe it’s the romance of falling leaves, the kids’ costumes, the turkey, and the visions of sugar plums that help us embrace the new season at hand. Or, maybe it’s the specter of holiday travel, visits from the in-laws, and battling through crowds at the mall that force us to trudge through the immediate future rather than look ahead to sunshine and grass clippings.

Whatever the case, if you – Mr./Ms. Midwestern Gardener – had a chance to reach six months into the future and grasp a fistful of spring, would you do it?

You could.

Your local garden center and greenhouse can help. They have plenty of spring in stock right now. They’re selling and you have a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Go ahead. Get the kids involved. Have some fun before the ground freezes.

You will be glad that you did. Plus, come April, it will make the neighbors jealous.

Go on.

Don’t miss your chance.

Remember last winter? Eight below….

Go.


Image: Tulipa Scabriscapaa, hand-colored engraving after a drawing by Miss S. A. Drake, from the 23rd volume of the Botanical Register (1837)




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