Taking a stand. Putting our collective foot down. Something like that.

Time for another rant of sorts—I suppose it’s going to sound like I woke up on the wrong side of the cactus bed, but really, all I’m doing is trying to talk some sense into an industry that doesn’t always make much sense. And anyways, who would sleep on a cactus bed? You might crush them, and that would be a crime against succulence and botanical architecture. But I digress.

On the horticulture/gardening blogs I follow, there’s been quite a buzz lately about garden shows: whether they are still relevant, why attendance is declining, what they should be, and what they have become. You can read about that here, here and here. The screaming message is that the more prominent the internet becomes in our society, the more traditional marketing methods, including trade shows, fail to remain important for small businesses. Ultimately what’s going to make or break these shows is how their managers and owners adapt to our changing society.

Case in point, the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. I mentioned earlier how scarce nursery vendors at this show have become. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, or that it we are not grateful for the experience—it was certainly valuable and, overall, good. Nevertheless we now have reason to sympathize with those nurseries who ask themselves, “Is it worth the time and money to put down $1500 for a booth when we’ll be lucky to make that much back in sales during the show, and people can always find us on the internet?” Heck, it took us more than a week of preparation, plus being present at the show, to make this happen; and we didn’t even have (or have to pay for, thankfully) a whole booth! Without being too repetitive of the above links, that I would encourage you to read, ideas that have been discussed to remedy this problem are reducing or eliminating booth fees for nurseries, and other special incentives, especially those with unusual and different offerings that will draw people to the show. As more nurseries continue to drop out, it should be obvious by now that their participation can’t be taken for granted; and soon you are left with a miscallaneous-home-and-maybe-garden-related-junk show with little to differentiate it from other home shows, showgoers wondering in disappointment where all the cool plants are, and declining attendance. Are show owners listening? Probably not. But I guess we’ll find out.

We have decided that whether we will participate in Treasure Island and the NWFGS show next year (should it be available again), will be contingent on three points. Our WSNLA membership must be demonstrably worth retaining for another year. Now is the time, over the coming months, for the association to show its stuff.* Treasure Island must be better promoted by the WSNLA prior to the show. And we will be requesting, and hoping to get, a corner table. In short we still want to do it but it has to make sense. In a broader sense we hope that the NWFGS will do more to woo nurseries back to the show, or else, we feel, Treasure Island is ultimately doomed, though it may endure a number of years. We will not be seeking to add to our schedule any more garden shows of this sort until they make a deliberate effort to become more friendly to specialty nurseries.

Speaking of making sense, I’d like to tie this into the related topic of multi-nursery plant sales. Since the internet keeps no secrets, it’s time I shared a little of “the dark side” of how this works for gardeners who visit these sales and may not have thought about it. For nurseries, multi-nursery sales are bitter-sweet. Sweet in that a lot of money comes in at once, and we get to promote ourselves to a broader group of customers and potential customers than we may otherwise reach. Bitter, in that the show facilitator takes a cut of the money, often a substantial one, and that preparation for the sale (not to mention putting unsold plants back into the nursery when it’s over) takes away a remarkable amount of time from the usual day-to-day nursery operations which continue on whether we’re there or not. So these multi-nursery sales are are quite similar to garden shows in the amount of time invested by the nursery, but when you get there you don’t have the distraction of all the non-plant vendors, ensuring that only true gardeners and “plant people” will attend. Also, the shows often benefit worthy causes such as plant societies, garden clubs and other nonprofits. So for both of those reasons, I consider them to be more valuable and worth keeping around than conventional for-profit garden shows such as the NWFGS. Generally speaking we want the best for multi-nursery sales and we would hate to see them go.

Obviously, running these shows, and particularly renting the venue, isn’t free. To make this all work, nurseries must contribute funds on either a fee or percentage basis. Fees obviously relate more directly to the cost of the venue, while the percentage basis is nice in that it provides equal opportunity for nurseries that might not sell as much. In the percentage-based sales we have participated in, show hosts have taken 20%, 25%, 30% or 40% with some of the more prominent organizations taking 40%. And we keep the rest.

Now enter the internet, and the fact that people probably spend more time learning about plants through online searches than going to plant sales, gardens, or nurseries; and I’m asking, why do we do these sales? Are they really that important? Sure they’re fun, but most people just find us on the internet, not through these plant sales. Perhaps we don’t need to do as many. This year we’ve added two multi-nursery sales to our list and and dropped one.

Another consideration is that the range of plants we offer appeals less to impulsive shoppers than that of many other nurseries. Our plants don’t always show you what they are going to do when they are small, and may not look that exciting if you haven’t read the description online. Our customers tend to be calculated in their purchases and less concerned about how cute something looks on the sale table in its pot. Unlike those of many other nurseries, many plants we grow won’t even bloom in a pot.

So with those factors in mind we’ve arrived at a decision: after this year, we will no longer participate in any plant sales in which the host gets more than 30%. No more 60/40 split sales for us, starting in 2012. I’m really not trying to start some sort of rebellion here (or actually, maybe I am? Bwahahahaha!) but it’s just time to do what makes sense for us and get closer to full value for our plants.

Before concluding that I am being mean, let’s consider that for many groups, it seems possible to run a show on less than 40%. This includes the Bloedel Premier Plant Sale coming up in April, which will take 30%. This is still a significant cut. It’s not like we’re demanding to retain 100% of sales!

We will especially miss a particular fall sale that we have participated in, and done well in, and enjoy, every year since (I think) 2007. It is run by a worthy organization but I am certainly not the first to complain about the 40% cut that they take from grower sales. It may be unlikely to occur, but we hope they will recognize the depth of change the internet has meant for the nursery business and consider changing their fee structure to attract and retain more nurseries. This may not seem a really urgent situation now, but as we have seen with garden shows, the best nurseries aren’t going to stick around forever if they feel they’re not getting a good deal.

If you want to support our business and can only attend two plant sales in the year, the ones to support above all the others are the Sequim Garden Show (third weekend of March, Sequim) and the Fronderosa Frolic (second weekend of August, Gold Bar). Both are fee-based and reasonably priced for all vendors. (Of course we don’t mind you visiting the other sales too! I just thought I’d help you prioritize… ha ha.)

Since we just did it, I’ll put forth the Sequim Garden Show as an example of a great show. It is very reasonably priced for vendors, and the staff and volunteers make sure everyone is taken care of throughout the event. They even leave water bottles for all the vendors throughout the day! (To be fair, I’ll mention that there’s plenty of niceness and volunteer help at the “expensive” shows too.) The show has many non-plant vendors, but I would expect this situation to remain static, rather than worsening, since booth fees are so low. Following are a couple pictures of our booth at the Sequim show and the plants we brought. Also, a sample of the slides from my presentation on broadleaf evergreens can be viewed here.

(bottom photo courtesy of Margie Diffner)

*In anticipation of a possible response to this statement, I realize that, broadly speaking, there is a sense in which the benefit of belonging to trade associations is a function of what you put into it. I may address this in more detail in a future post.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Loree / danger garden
    Mar 29, 2011 @ 12:07:32

    You make so many interesting points here Ian. I know that as a garden show attendee if there weren’t vendors selling plants I wouldn’t be nearly as interested in attending, after all the plants are what it’s all about for me. The local Yard, Garden, and Patio show has something similar to the Treasure Island booth but it’s called the Remarkable Green Market. Each nursery gets an area to display their plants and the actual purchasing part is handled by Master Gardener Volunteers (the organization of course gets a cut). The numbers you give (40% !!) certainly seem quite steep, reminds me of the art gallery’s my husband’s work has been in…they take 50%. One half of the selling price goes to the artist! Crazy.

    I am very happy to hear you talk about the Internet and the visibility it gives you. Do you sell a lot of plants online? I don’t know why I’ve let so much time go by without contacting you about plant lust (my website)…gonna sign off here and go send you an email!


  2. Ian
    Apr 01, 2011 @ 08:49:33

    Well perhaps I’m a total hypocrite since we have just added another 40% sale to our schedule – the Florabundance sale hosted by the Arboretum Foundation. Well see how it goes though – as I often say, we’ll try anything once! Yes, we do sell a lot online, even when the web site is overdue for an update.


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