Horticulture and the “Shop Local” Movement

We’re hearing it all the time nowadays. “Shop local. It matters!” “Buy locally and keep money in your community!” We even had “Small Business Saturday” (sponsored by that really small, local business American Express – oh well, we’ll take whatever help we can get) in the midst of the holiday shopping rush that this supposedly peaceful season has become. So, what’s a gardener to do? Now that I have given this quite a lot of thought, I would say two starting points for this discussion come to the surface. First, it’s truly a personal issue for me, since I am the owner of a small, local business. Second, it’s also a very complex issue, and one where sweeping generalizations about “what one should do” have the potential to be unhelpful and only create divisiveness, which is counterproductive: open-minded and balanced dialogue is in order. On the other hand, it is still possible to pick out profound implications of various trends, which we do in conclusion.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on in the realm of horticulture that pertains to this discussion. To start with, we can observe that “the big box stores” are often viewed as being in fierce competition with “small, independent, local” (etc.) businesses for consumer dollars. Consumers should therefore “vote with their dollars” about what kinds of businesses they would prefer to keep around, and whether their next trip to the big box isn’t just supporting some CEO’s lavish lifestyle. This assertion, however, leads to all kinds of sub-issues that need to be fleshed out individually.

First, you have the question of whether big businesses and their executives and upper management are inherently “bad” somehow. Many people today would say “yes,” believing them to be inevitably driven by corporate greed (hence the “occupy” movement). Nevertheless it’s ridiculous to expect all of society to agree on whether such businesses deserve support from consumers, or how they should be taxed, or how big a business has to become before it is taxed differently. One independent garden center owner I know makes over $300,000 per year for a salary. Let us suppose that he has worked hard all his life to get to that point and knows how to take great care of his employees. Should he be taxed the same as corporate members of huge businesses? How big does a business like this have to grow before it becomes no longer small, local, or beneficial and public sentiment turns against it? Is it big when it brings in $5 million per year in gross sales? 50 million? I ask these questions to point out that the difference between a “small,” “local,” and/or “independent” business and a big, “evil” one is ultimately quite arbitrary and difficult to define.

Then on top of that you have those who think there is nothing really wrong with what big business is doing, for the most part. This may be a defensible position depending on one’s broader philosophical and religious views, but I won’t get into that here. One hopes that people who hold to this position will still at the very least spend a proportion of their dollars at small, local businesses. Then you have those – probably a significant percentage – who think big businesses may often be doing bad things but just plain don’t care enough to change their shopping habits, or feel they can’t afford to. The affordability of shopping at local small businesses depends so much on one’s individual situation, it’s nearly impossible to generalize about that.

The potential for hypocrisy here is considerable. We’ve all seen those pictures of “occupy” protesters sporting a diverse array of products, clothing and devices manufactured by the very same large companies whose greedy and self-serving ways they are protesting. So it is throughout our society, if we stop to think about where everything we consume originates. Small business owners (and I speak from experience) are often guilty of a different but parallel kind of hypocrisy. I will admit that in the early days of the Desert Northwest I was still buying most of my non-specialized nursery supplies; such as wood for building greenhouses and tables, irrigation components, and perlite; at the big box. It really is all too easy for business owners, or for anyone, to shop from large companies for their needs without a second thought. Their names and images associated with them are so pervasive to our thought because of their prominence in society, that it takes a deliberate effort, and ultimately a shift in overall mentality, to consider somewhere else we might want to do business that would suit our needs.

To add a further layer of complexity to that part of the discussion, it may be noted that there are many cases in which huge businesses and small businesses are offering for sale the same product from the same manufacturer. In such cases, how much difference does it really make when one giant manufacturer is behind it all? Should these manufacturers that sell to small and large businesses be supported (indirectly, for the end consumer) at all? This is a raging question in the nursery business, as certain manufacturers (and I include some wholesale nurseries in this category) try to balance selling the same product to independent small nurseries as to the big box stores; who then offer the same thing for a lower price, because they negotiate quantity discounts, and because they (often) pay their employees less. (More on that in a future post.) Then on top of all that we have a problem when many small independent stores with the best of intentions simply find over time that the market isn’t there to support specialty, quality products offered at appropriately higher prices (or in some cases they may be shut out of the supply chain for other reasons). All too often the end result with independent merchants is that by attempting to compete on price, they compromise on quality leading to a downward spiral of ineptitude in their product offerings.

Now, backing up just a bit: a certain faction of people would have changed the direction of this discussion a few paragraphs ago by emphasizing their belief that this concept of direct competition between the big box and independent/local nurseries and garden centers is a myth. This assertion is based on the theory that successful independent nurseries will have differentiated (in their product lines, overall shopping experience, and services) to the point that they are not really competing for the same customer dollars. From this mindset comes the idea that the real competition about which the horticulture industry ought to be truly concerned is that people are abandoning gardening and related pursuits for other types of leisure activities. Some among these, even including some independent nursery owners I have heard from, would even take that concept so far as to conclude that everyone in the industry (regardless of size and business practices) ought to work together to promote gardening in general without concern for which particular businesses get the benefits of such promotions; and that the “bickering” back an forth about whether box stores and their suppliers should be promoted or patronized is a waste of time and effort.

I can see value in some way or another to all of these perspectives. But one other important thing to note is that the power the box stores have puts them at an indisputable, unfair competitive advantage against independent and small businesses. To me this is sort of the trump card that tips me in favor of supporting independent and small businesses as much as I can, in the name of fairness. (Not that life is always fair, as we all learned in third grade, but why help to make it even less fair than it is already?)

Lest anyone think the numerous closures of local businesses in the past few years, and all the locally created jobs lost along the way, are not already evidence enough of this power; I provide a story to demonstrate this point. This is a true story, and originally I was going to withhold the names of those involved for the sake of focusing on the issue in a general sense, rather than the perpetrator; but since it’s all over the internet anyways now, I’ll point out this link to where you can read enough to get the gist of it.

Now the person describing the story in the above link is clearly biased against garden bloggers, but (comparatively speaking) lets PW off the hook. My point here is not really to negatively criticize garden bloggers. While much more could be said about them, and their role in all this; it is a bit beyond my area of personal expertise to do so myself, and tangential to the point I wish to highlight.

Rather, I want to focus on the business end of things. Let’s take a look at PW’s tactics here. As soon as they got wind of this negative post, they sent a whole bunch of garden bloggers to counter the negative feedback on her blog. And they sent the blogger who produced the negative review a nasty note essentially “firing” her from any future involvement from the company. All this over one under-performing plant which they still continue to promote, and have not pulled from their offerings. This kind of “manipulative marketing” (let us call it) is deceptively clever and requires a network far beyond the capacity of most local small businesses.

So what, you say? PW is just protecting its own interests, as any business would. Well, here are a few things I consider to be problematic about this. One, that this company has demonstrated they wish to compromise honesty about their products to protect themselves, at (so far) whatever expense is necessary. Second, it follows that they really don’t care at all what effects their actions might have on the personal reputations of garden bloggers involved. Finally, what happens when they pull this off is that they are able to continue selling crap material to naïve customers and getting away with it. As I had discussed in an earlier blog post (and others have discussed elsewhere), many newer plants going around in the trade simply aren’t bred for survival in the garden, or tested extensively enough prior to their release. All too often the customer will read great reviews about a plant and blame themselves when something goes wrong. With this sort of thing happening, is it any wonder that people are giving up on gardening in favor of other pursuits? And how many normal gardeners or nursery shoppers really have a clue that all this is going on?

Anyway, imagine a local, small business trying to pull off something like this. Even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t get away with it. A small, local business with disingenuous and heavy-handed practices seldom remains in business for long.

So, where does this leave us a the Desert Northwest? Well, we do, in fact, believe that shopping local is usually beneficial in the grand scheme, as more money is kept circulating locally, and less goes overseas or into the pockets of people who already have more than they know what to do with (though we don’t think that vanishing breed of people who have become wealthy while practicing business with integrity are somehow evil just because they are rich). So we now make an effort to do as much business as possible with locally owned independent merchants, without getting too legalistic about it or compromising on access to quality products as needed. We do this because we want to support real people in the community who depend on each other for their livelihoods. We think it helps to make life a bit more fair for society in general. We also recognize that since mail-order is such a big part of our business, we are not truly a local business to many of our customers. But we are small, and independently owned, no matter how you slice it – and that is still much in this day and age.

To discuss whether we consider the Desert Northwest to be in direct competition with box stores is more complex than it may at first seem. We don’t sell anything besides plants, so we don’t compete on other gardening products (though we still encourage anyone to buy them from a local merchant, rather than at the box). As to where people obtain plants for their gardens, we see ourselves as one tiny piece of a larger societal movement where public sentiment very gradually turns against large corporations and towards small businesses over a long period of time. It’s true that we offer pretty much none of the same plants you can find at a box store, and thus might be considered not to be competing with them. Still, if we didn’t think our plants were more interesting or superior in other ways to what you can get at the box, we would not be growing what we do. We would encourage anyone to give our plants – our entire gardening mindset, for that matter – a try, yet we don’t really expect to “win” customers from box stores any faster than the creeping changes in societal trends and favoritism.

With that in mind, we think the best thing to do for the time being is to continue spreading our message and not worry too much about competition, while hoping that the fruit of our labor will be realized in the distant future. And what is our message? Well you can read back on our blog and gather quite a bit of it. We also provide this brief summary of what we are about. If it sounds at all interesting to you, please consider doing business with us! Or, at least, consider choosing your local, independently owned nursery or garden center over the big box whenever possible.

In other news (yet related, appropriately enough), Facebook has done small businesses throughout the world a major disservice by hiding the majority of business wall posts from the majority of personal users. This started almost three months ago and seems unlikely to change as it has not done so yet. If that was what people had wanted they could just “unlike” businesses or block their wall posts at any time. But hey, it wouldn’t be the first time Facebook didn’t care enough about its users to listen to what they actually want. Perhaps one ought not to complain about what was an optional, free service to begin with; but this is clearly a move to compel small businesses to purchase Facebook ads – in short, nothing better than a money grab. We’re not going to play their games, but we will maintain our Facebook page as long as that’s where everyone is. As far as I can tell, they have not allowed for a way to be certain you are getting our updates in Facebook, though it may help if you go to our page and interact in some way. We figure we can’t worry too much about things like this. Anyone can still read our blog, or sign up for our e-mail list; these will remain our primary means of keeping in touch with those interested in our doings. To those of you who have done so, we thank you!

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Pitsenberger
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 17:02:32

    There is a market for quality. Maybe we will see a Renaissance in locally produced, high quality goods. There will always be a market for cheap. As we now know cheap comes with a price. In my opinion much of our current economic problems stem from cheaply made goods. We should figure the real cost of cheap into our decisions. Maybe the hand crafted shovel made within a hundred miles by someone who cares comes out cheaper, or at least equal in the big scheme of things. Why can’t that shovel last a lifetime if cared for properly?

    If you build great stuff or have a fantastic service your social media efforts are easy. Just give you fans a way to share in the enthusiasm with their friends. It’s a natural flow, unlike the attempts of some companies to “manipulate” results.


  2. Ian
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 17:51:17

    Trey, all good points. For the most part people hardly give a thought to the real cost of cheap – I would love to see the Renaissance you speak of but it’s hard to say what will catalyze it. As you can tell, I’m still trying to get my mind around this topic. My experience is still somewhat limited and things are changing quickly.


  3. Loree / danger garden
    Dec 09, 2011 @ 08:44:17

    Great article Ian.


  4. Ian
    Dec 10, 2011 @ 11:45:59

    Thanks Loree. Since I posted, more information has come to light calling into question the blogger who was “victimized” – however as this changes nothing about PW’s actions, I’ll let the post stand as is for now. I’m starting to lean towards a policy of steering clear of involvement with “garden bloggers” who are not, like you and David C, unwaveringly professional and courteous (as well has having great taste in plants!).


  5. Trackback: Several Fun Conifers, Facebook in General, Web Update | THE DESERT NORTHWEST [blog]

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