With research revealing that almost 80 percent of American households participate in one or more types of lawn and garden activity, and that each one spends $466 annually, it seems the amateur gardeners' market is one that's—ahem—ripe for the mailing.
But much like weeds, a few challenges persistently crop up when hunting for, and mailing to, names in this market. Chief among these is the market's breadth—the term "gardener" can apply as easily to someone with potted plants on an apartment balcony as it can to someone with a large vegetable garden.
"Any time you've got eight out of 10 households in America doing the same thing, you've got pretty much everybody," says Bruce Butterfield, market research director at the National Gardening Association (NGA).
Another challenge is the increasing market share that home-goods retail chains now claim in the gardening sector.
Still, there's no reason why, with a little extra effort and some careful targeting, tapping into the gardening market can't yield a bounty of qualified prospects for appropriate mailers.
The gardener market skews toward an older demographic, a finding anecdotal evidence seems to support.
According to survey results released from the Mailorder Gardening Association (MGA), the mail-order gardener's average age is 50.
"People are genetically programmed to garden if they get gray hair," jokes NGA's Butterfield. He says membership in his association also trends toward the 50-plus demographic. "The baby boom is hitting middle age," he explains. "In your thirties you're concentrated on work, in your forties it's family, and in your fifties your kids are grown and you have time to pursue your own interests."
Plus, he adds, since boomers are now hitting their financial stride, they often view their home as their most promising investment, and take up gardening to add value to it.
Additionally, MGA's research finds that gardeners who buy via direct mail skew more female than male (60 percent are female, 40 percent are male). And the average MGA gardener income level is $63,000, although Butterfield points out that income levels for the broader gardening market vary considerably. For example, he points out, "You find retirees are really important to this market, and they have a fixed income."
Buying Habits and Preferences
Despite the encroachment of retail-only chains such as Lowe's and Home Depot on this traditionally direct response-heavy market, experts believe direct mail will maintain a solid footing in the future, if only for the uniquely sourced merchandise it can offer. "[Mail order is] the only way you can get certain seeds, certain bulbs and certain tools," insists Joe Lamoglia, director of membership and development at the American Horticultural Society. "The variety of plants out there couldn't be held in one physical place."
In fact, 59 percent of mail-order gardeners cited "unique merchandise not available elsewhere" as their main reason for ordering gardening products by mail in 2002. Conversely, "If they can buy it at Home Depot, they probably don't care to have it mailed to them," affirms Butterfield. In other words, gardeners crave fresh, original product.
They also crave information, and industry experts anecdotally cite this as the reason much of the gardening market is very Internet-savvy. The Internet's convenience also suits the truly avid gardener, according to Bill LaPierre, a list broker at Millard Group, which handles an array of gardening lists. "If you've ordered seeds through the mail, and you order $20 worth of seeds at $1 a bag, you have 20 lines to fill on the order form," he says. "These consumers are more apt to just click through an order."
Though the first and second quarters of the year are undoubtedly the busiest time of year for gardeners to buy, the market is rapidly turning into one that profits throughout the year. One reason: People are planning their gardens even when they're not planting them—during fall and especially winter.
Butterfield explains this industry phenomenon as "psychological spring"—the period after New Year's when people have recovered enough from the holidays to start looking forward to spring, and consequently start planning their gardens. Lamoglia claims that gardening society memberships and gardening magazine subscriptions fare especially well during this time.
In addition, gardeners' buying patterns vary depending on which type of garden they have. "Perennials buyers buy in a rapid pattern, then decline. If you're an annuals or seeds buyer, you buy all year," says Linda McAleer, executive vice president at Millard Group.
Though the associations and list brokers contacted conclude that straight gardening offers seem to work best with this group, they concede that gardeners are buying more accessories than before. In 2002, 29 percent of mail-order gardeners bought gardening aids, and 27 percent bought gifts or decorative items with a garden theme, according to MGA. Marketers of environmentally-focused products, or those marketers that can produce an environmentally conscious spin on their product, also may fare well with gardeners.
Some list brokers also report success with publishing, credit card, continuity, children's apparel, collectibles and fund-raising offers.
Creative, Plain and Simple
Make offers attractive by appealing to gardeners' sensitivities when designing your mailings and other tools, advises Lamoglia. "Gardening is very emotional; people are doing this as a way to relax, to find some peace," he points out. "I think direct mail that conveys that peace is going to be more successful than those strictly focusing on the offer."
Lamoglia, who coordinates marketing for both the society and its membership magazine, The American Gardener, suggests mailers also keep their creative simple. For example, the society's control piece consists of a four-page letter and a two-color outer envelope.
Copywriter Ken Schneider takes this one step further by approaching mail packages for gardening offers as he would a package for recipe books: He makes the activity seem accessible to anyone. One of his most winning packages for publisher Meredith Corp. was based around the copy line, "Create a Garden Full of Miracles." He believes it appealed to people because of its promise—"Even if you're not good at this, you can make it happen."
Schneider, who has worked with mailers such as Southern Living and Better Homes and Gardens, adds that gardeners are very situation- and results-oriented. He recommends using a "show me" approach in your mailing, including many "before" and "after" photographs, and without too many written instructions.
Experts highlight the fact that premiums such as books, seeds and bulbs successfully drive this market's response rates. "We find that the seeds aren't even taken advantage of that often, but it does move the needle on response to offer them," says Lamoglia.