With grocery chain competitors and a nearby mass merchandiser carrying bedding plants, I felt that our co-op, Bloomingfoods, should do so too -- only do it a different way.
I contacted my largest certified organic grower, Stranger's Hill Farm, who had a greenhouse used for growing their own seedlings; they also sold a few bedding plants at a farmers market. I also investigated commercial sources of bedding plants and acquired catalogs from huge greenhouse operations in other states. Although I later realized I hadn't been comparing "apples to apples," it appeared that the prices of commercial bedding plants were at least 30 percent lower than what it would it cost us to do organics. But my organic growers, besides being local, helped me see the difference their products provided.
To display the bedding plant trays outdoors, we built three-tier racks from local hardwood. They were 8-12 feet long, about 3 feet deep, with clear plastic stapled to the back and sides for wind protection. Taking care ofthe plants was a major concern for me and our general manager. Fortunately, my growers (who are about 10 miles away) offered to come by once or twice most days to check the plants, water and prune them, and remove dying ones. Even though they had only 50 varieties at the start, with the growers essentially guaranteeing their plants I felt that we would do well selling the first certified organic bedding plants in the area.
The first year of sales did turn out really well; customers were very excited about it. More people were becoming educated through our bedding plant sales, which were always advertised as certified organic. There were many opportunities to answer their questions about organics.
One factor in the co-op's favor is that we are right on a main road, and our large selection of racked bedding plants is very visible. It looks like a mininursery, which attracts people who wouldn't otherwise stop. And although the plants are outside, customers have to come inside the store to purchase them; we catch them with customer service and volunteer to show them around the store.
A major reason for more diversity in our produce operation, besides distinguishing ourselves from the competition, is that we happen to be located near a major university, Indiana University, which has a very diverse community. People from all over the world come to the co-op asking for things they can't get elsewhere and that we want to be able to provide for them.
In our second season, my growers expanded from 50 to over 200 different varieties. I thought the vegetable plants would do the best, since people would want to start their own gardens. And at first I worried that getting lots of customers started on their own organic gardens would cut into sales of organic vegetables in the co-op's produce department. As it turned out, we sold at least ten times the amount of flowers and herbs as we did vegetables. And even in the peak of the garden season, my sales of organic vegetables were unaffected.
Although at first I couldn't explain the sales pattern, I think the reason we didn't sell nearly as many vegetable bedding plants as I had expected is that many gardeners are used to growing their own vegetables from seed, but are not familiar with many of the more exotic flowers and herbs. The herbs and flowers opened up opportunities for people to expand their gardens, expand their window boxes -- to expand their awareness and be inspired by the plants. I got inspired myself, as I'm sure anyone would who has a garden and now has a half dozen things that one has never been able to grow before, because they weren't available.
By the end of the second season, the growers were doing so well they began growing seedlings for other farmers who did not have greenhouses or who were not as successful in raising healthy and varied bedding plants. In the third year the co-op's display was up to 350 different varieties of bedding plants! We had people coming in to special order things for their gardens or farms.
My grower, Stranger's Hill Farm, has continued to be very cooperative. They have fine-tuned their operation according to supply and demand, keeping track on computer of all sales for the 350 different varieties. My management side of it isn't very labor intensive, since the growers control their operation and are so closely in touch with what sells and what doesn't.
Last year, we also began a twice weekly farmers market in the co-op's parking lot and did extremely well with bedding plant sales there. Surprisingly, it didn't affect sales ofbedding plants in the store. Overall store sales have risen about 15 percent in each of the last three years, but bedding plant sales have grown exponentially -- and that's without much advertising. But I plan to do a lot more promotion, because I believe Bloomingfoods Co-op has the largest retail selection of certified organic flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables in our region.
We are looking forward to putting out a newsletter this year, and possibly conducting workshops on starting bedding plants, if there is a demand for it. We're interested in hearing from people who may want to start a certified organic bedding plants operation in their area, and taking them step-by-step through what it takes to provide this for a retail. It's an opportunity for a co-op to have something that no one else has.
I am really proud to be able to drive into the co-op's parking lot and see the big sign saying "Certified Organic Bedding Plants" and all the racks with dozens of plant trays. Besides making lots of sales, we are encouraging co-op members to grow things in their gardens organically and are educating them about organics just through this one aspect of retail merchandising.