January 2004
Putting Trees in the Limelight By Jonathan Pedersen

Merchandising trees may be difficult, but being creative makes it possible.

Over the last 10 years, garden centers have become more sophisticated in their approach to selling, merchandising and displaying in many areas of the store. We build new greenhouses for annuals and perennials, new stores are designed for gifts and chemical and fertilizer products, and ponds are incorporated to help sell water plants and products. All this makes for a nicer shopping environment for the customer and should help loosen their purse strings and increase your average sale. Great news, but are you missing an important area of your store that needs an upgrade?

Yes, I am talking about that area in the back corner of the lot. That lonely area where customers can get lost, sales staff only get to if a call comes over the radio, and none of the aisles are fully paved, often muddy and generally overlooked. I’m talking about your tree department. It’s easy to see why this happens. At an average price of over $50 each, trees are harder to sell than a 41/2-inch petunia at $2.99. Better yet, they tend to fall over all the time and are heavy to lift, sometimes requiring two staff people to lift, not to mention trying to fit a 10-foot tree in a Yugo. All that said, there’s an opportunity in the tree department that we are missing and one that we as an industry need to address.

The Importance of Trees

Without trees in the landscape what do you have? Well for one thing, you can throw away all your shade plants, including all the great new perennials, annuals and shrubs for the shade. Every good garden needs the balance that trees bring to the landscape; they give height, depth, texture, color and shape throughout the seasons and add maturity to the landscape. We need trees from an environmental level too, as they clean the air and, when planted correctly around a home and within a city, can save energy costs by reducing the average temperature by up to 10° F. Their deep root systems also help with erosion and water conservation.

If you have traveled much in Europe you will see the use of trees everywhere from their freeway plantings, which line the highways 20 rows deep, to even the narrowest of streets and their smaller homes and lots. Trees are truly part of their communities at all levels. We have a great opportunity in the United States, and some would say duty, to get this same level of commitment for the use of trees in our communities — from a government level for use in parks and along highways down to the individual homeowner for landscaping in their yard. With the housing market in an unprecedented boom, the later home use creates the best opportunity in years. The use of trees in the landscape will benefit your community as a whole and your sales for years to come.

Pricing: The First Step

Yes, you say, encouraging the use of trees makes great sense, but how can I translate that into improved tree sales at my garden center? The first step is to look at your pricing. Are you charging the right amount for the trees you sell? The margin on most trees should be at least 50 percent. And yes, this will make most of your tree stock much higher than any other plant in your garden center. They should be, and think about how much profit you will be making. With the average price of a tree at $50, and some much higher, trees can really improve your average sale in a hurry. Annuals do have a faster turn, but you also need to sell quite a few to make $25 in gross margin.

One of the complaints I hear about selling tress is that customers don’t want to spend that much money for a single commodity item; Á therefore, the area gets neglected by management and staff, as the higher turn, lower priced items are focused on. The customer’s value perception goes down because the tree department is not cared for, and sales decline. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Education is required to train staff on not only the benefits of trees but also on their value. Trees are a good investment for consumers when you consider how old the plant is and how long it will last. The average number five, $50 container tree is four years old, compared to a $39.99 12-inch hanging basket that’s 14 weeks old; the tree will last a lifetime, whereas the hanging basket will probably not make it through more than a few months. Which is a better value for the money? I have always thought that trees need a born-on date to help the customer see the value that trees provide.

Merchandising Basics

Now that you see the bottom-line value in tree sales, investing time and money in merchandising them might not seem like such a stretch. The cheapest and quickest way to increase tree sales is simply to create some excitement around the department.

Why not bring some trees up to the front of the store in a high traffic area or place some on an endcap as you would with other plant material? Trees are also a great area to have staff tie in additional sales with companion products such as planting mixes, fertilizers, mulch, tree stakes and shovels. (And if you offer landscaping services, don’t forget to ask the customer if she would rather just have it installed.)

One great idea I saw on a recent trip was the use of a portable tree stand that looked like the spokes of a wheel. This allowed the garden center to easily move trees from the back of the store to another, higher traffic area and market them as an impulse sale, without the hassle of having trees falling over all the time. A display unit like this is simple and easy to move around — a real winner.

Another important factor in merchandising trees is to have a system for securing them so they do not fall over but are still conducive to self-service access. This adds to the experience of selecting a tree and also allows a place for clearly posting the benefits of each variety within easy view. Velcro is a great tool for doing this. It will hold the tree securely and is still easy to undo. The place I visited also had a nice wood border around the display to stop carts from damaging trunks and enable all trees to be on drip irrigation. Á

The final touch to any well-merchandised area is signage. My favorite sign for this department does not even mention trees but the benefits they provide for the customer: “instant effect.” What better sign than this one to tell your customers why trees are great for their yards? With all the hustle and bustle of today’s society, customers are willing to pay more for that finished look in their yard, and trees are a big part of that. Signage can play a major part in your overall tree sales along with the level of service that you provide.

Clean, neat and tidy tree departments just like you do the rest of the store. It looks great and is not only practical but easy to shop, more conducive to shopping and also protects trees from damage.

A few last thoughts

I recently spoke to one garden center owner who said that his large ball and burlap tree sales where very soft. He was surprised because he was in a location with very fast development of middle to upper income housing, and even with the trees on sale, they were slow to move. I suggested that he increase the price of the trees to cover delivery and planting and change his advertising to include free “delivery and planting.” The phone started ringing with orders. No discount at all, just a rewording and promotion of the service he already provided, changing it from a premium to an added value. This attracted customers who wanted the tree but not the chore of planting it.

We need to sell trees based on the benefits they provide and give the tree area the same level of service, store fixtures and display that you would give other areas. In spring, what is more attractive than a group of crab apples or cherry trees in full bloom? Yes, trees can be an impulse sale, but you can’t hide them on the back far corner of the property and have a sales person point in their general direction when a customer is looking for a tree. You have to work the tree department, both from a planning as well as a personnel perspective, as you would any other area of the store.

Jonathan Pedersen

Jonathan Pedersen is the marketing manager for Bailey Nurseries Inc., St. Paul, Minn. For questions about merchandising trees, he can be reached by phone at (800) 829-8898.




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