May 23, 2011

No Focus Group Has Approved These Flowers

The Wall Street Journal recently published a fascinating article about an ‘annual arms race’ between Lowe’s and Home Depot to produce the most appealing plants for shoppers and the lengths to which each chain goes to in order to maximize market share.  One paragraph from that story jumped off the page to me:  it said both Lowe’s and Home Depot utilize focus groups to winnow hundreds of promising new cultivars down to the handful that will show up in the stores’ garden centers.

Let me play that one back:  the cultivars you see in the Big Box stores are the product of focus groups.

Metrolina Greenhouses, which provides
annuals to Lowe's and Home Depot
A focus group, for the uninitiated, is a panel of consumers created by a research firm to assess reactions to new products or concepts.  ‘Ordinary’ people are put in a room and asked to view and rate commercials, prospective product names or packaging design; or taste soups, barbeque sauce or colas; or… say which flower appeals to them more.  Do you find this flower offensive?  Which color is more soothing?

I suppose that’s why I don’t shop for flowers at Big Box stores.  I don’t want my choices limited by what a focus group determined was the most ‘cheerful’ daisy or the ‘friendliest’ shade of impatiens.  In fact, I don’t want either those impatiens or daisies in my garden.

Andrew's Greenhouse is not quite as
large, and focus groups don't
appear to be involved.
The catalyst for bringing up an article that appeared on April 27 is that Betty and I went shopping for flowers on Saturday.  We ventured 170 miles round trip (with gas at $3.89 per gallon) in order to purchase some $200 of annuals (and a few perennials) from Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst, Massachusetts.  Why?  Because we wanted plants that would cause people to sit up and take notice.  We wanted plants that would ‘pop’ in containers.  We wanted plants with sizzle. 

It took two hours of meticulous comparison to find the annuals we wanted (or, to be completely truthful, that Betty wanted because she is the one who designs the containers into which these plant will go).  We grouped cultivars looking for memorable color arcs and juxtaposing flower and leaf sizes and shapes.  We endlessly examined individual plants seeking the one with the most buds and the best conformance. 

Part of our haul from Andrew's. 
 It will take abouttwo weeks to put together
 the first dozen or so containers.
Andrew’s, of course, does not sell every annual offered by every seed company or propagator.  I would judge the number of offerings at about 500.  But every cultivar is described in glorious detail in Andrew’s catalog and the plants in the retail greenhouse were grown on the premises, ensuring a disease-free purchase.  (You may recall that the ‘late blight’ that wiped out most of the northeast’s tomato crop in 2009 was traced to seedlings shipped to Big Box stores from southern greenhouses.)

Yesterday evening, Betty began the process of assembling those purchases into containers.  (Each container may be reconfigured half a dozen times and even a ‘final’ container is subject to editing.)  The beauty of what we purchased became evident as she worked when the unusual bumped up against more common annuals to create a garden in a pot that will grow more interesting as the plants grow together.  Not everyone would care for our choices.  Anyone with the same group of plants would do the containers differently, that is the beauty of individuality.  A beauty that I would believe is harder to imagination when all the plants have won the focus groups’ award of “least likely to offend”.

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