Fall 2011
Cultivating Profits in the Great Outdoors By Heather Johnson Durocher

The growing popularity of DIY projects, farmers' markets and an increased emphasis on the outdoors means products in this category are having their time in the sun. It has never been a better time to reap rich dividends with garden and outdoor products.

The cherry-red, egg-shaped ceramic piece hanging in the storefront window stands out thanks to its glossy coloring, but passersby may not immediately know it’s a birdfeeder. That’s where the stuffed animal feline, peeking out from a red-and-cream teepee “cat house” nearby comes in, says Tony Wong, co-owner of the Brooklyn, NY home décor shop Abode.

“We try to have a little sense of humor, having the cat looking up at the birdfeeder,” Wong says of the color-coordinated display. Once customers take a closer look at the handcrafted J. Schatz egg bird feeders, many are eager buyers. “It’s practical, but also well designed,” Wong says, “and it’s something that makes a statement in the yard. There really isn’t anything like that on the market.”

The dirt on garden accessories

Beautiful design and strong functionality—both are essential components of today’s in-demand garden and outdoor décor, furniture and accessories. From wildlife-friendly items like birdfeeders, bat houses and bee lodges, to ornamental garden stakes, lighting, pots and planters, to patio tables, chair and benches, home products designed for outdoor living offer shoppers plenty of ways to create open-air sanctuaries to suit their individual styles.

Even in this economy—or perhaps because of it—consumers are investing in their gardens and outdoor living spaces. It’s similar to buying art for your walls or fresh flowers for a vase on your dining room table, says Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, VT.

“It’s personal pride,” Butterfield says. “And at the same time, I think there’s this whole sense of even though the economy is bad and we can’t control what happens in the broader world, I think people like to think they have some small amount of control in their own backyard—people are saying, ‘the big world out there may be crazy, but it doesn’t mean it has to be crazy in my own backyard.'”

The grass is greener

About 80 million U.S. households took part in lawn and garden activities in 2010, Butterfield says, with each household spending an average of $355 on lawn care, landscaping and gardening. As for outdoor living—purchasing barbecue grills, outdoor furniture, fencing, outdoor lighting, decor and other accessories—some 39 million households opened their wallets for such products, according to the Association’s 2011 National Gardening Survey.

While the National Gardening Association doesn’t track sales figures specifically for outdoor living, an uptick in do-it-yourself gardening indicates that people are spending more on garden- and outdoor-related products. According to the Association’s report The Impact of Home and Community Gardening in America, food gardening in the U.S. is on the rise, with seven million more households growing their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, or berries in 2009 than in 2008.

To complement their DIY gardening, consumers are investing in numerous kinds of outdoor furniture and accessories. To withstand the elements, these products are made of materials such as wood, ceramic, wicker, powder-coated metal, copper, clay, natural river stone and stainless steel. Furniture items are mostly resistant to moisture and ultra-violet ray-resistant. So beautiful are many of these functional designs that manufacturers say they’re also often used indoors as well.

Make a statement

Linda Paice, senior designer for garden giftware and holiday home décor wholesaler Rosemary & Time, says consumers are looking to make a statement with their purchases in this category. “People don’t want teeny tiny lanterns that sit on their tabletop—they want big lanterns,” Paice says. This is why Rosemary & Time, based in Markham, Ontario, creates tabletop lanterns 27 inches high. Matching greenhouses, made of glass and trimmed with wood, can be used as planters or for candles, Paice adds.

Jim Schatz, the designer and creator at J. Schatz, also believes in the power of statement pieces—quality, handcrafted products that are attractive and practical. He is known for his birdfeeders, birdhouses and lighting. Schatz’s feeders are made from stoneware and resemble a flower. “Most of the market is filled with plastic [hummingbird feeders],” he says. “They work, but they’re not going to complement anyone’s home or yard … it’s not just about putting something in your environment that’s going to work—it’s putting something in your environment that is attractive.”

Retailer Carla Denker, owner of specialty shop Plastica in Los Angeles, agrees. “People would come in and ask, ‘do you have hummingbird feeders?'” she says. “I was pushing him for a couple of years, telling him ‘you’ve got to make a hummingbird feeder.’ We just got them and they’ve been selling. They’re really cute.”

Wholesaler Ancient Graffiti also designs “beautiful garden art,” says founder Patricia Santenello. “We’re always bringing out new products. I think you have to constantly evolve with new products,” says Santenello, who resides in Vermont though the company’s headquarters relocated to Illinois.

The company’s kinetic spinners for the garden are made from iron, with a powder coating, and “move beautifully in the wind,” she says. “That’s one of our very strong lines.” Ancient Graffiti also creates colorful bird baths, whimsical bird houses and pretty garden stakes, including one featuring angels with bells.

Claire Woodsum, who handles product development as well as marketing for wholesaler Foreside Home & Garden, agrees consumers are seeking significance in their purchases. “In terms of their homes and gardens, they want to make a statement, they want to do something that’s special to them,” says Woodsum, of Fallbrook, CA. To that end, Foreside Home & Garden strives to offer products that touch on different “lifestyles,” including eco, mountain house, coastal and one called Midnight Garden.

“We really focus on putting garden in all of them,” she says. “It’s about creating that outdoor living space and a place in the garden where you can entertain in the moonlight or sit out in the sun with a glass of tea,” Woodsum says. “The colors are soft, the pallets are more romantic.”

A couple of larger statement pieces include Foreside’s resin sheep and pig planters, which are nearly life size. Retailing at $180 and $130, respectively, these items are especially popular with customers, Woodsum says. “They’re not [inexpensive],” Woodsum says of these animals, “but it’s not inhibiting anyone. People are willing to invest in these areas if the product is high quality and will last.”

Decorative pottery sells well for Napa Home & Garden, a wholesaler in Duluth, GA. The company’s larger pieces are about two feet tall, retailing at $125-$175, while the mini pots are $5 each. “They’re perfect for adding color among the foliage,” says Martyn Fernambucq, director of merchandising, of the bigger pieces. “On the opposite end are our mini pots and ultra minis, generally in the 2-feet to 4-feet range and ideal for displaying en masse. These brightly-glazed pots are classic small urns, tulip pots and simple medallions such as single ‘fleur de lis’ emblems embossed on the sides.”

Napa Home & Garden also recently introduced a collection of 70 wired foam flowers, ranging in size from six inches in length to four feet. “Because none of them look like anything in particular, and a vast majority of them include a little whimsy, we named them ‘fantasy flowers,'” Fernambucq says. “They are for use indoors or on a covered patio.”

For the birds

In the area of outdoor living, the idea of co-existing with wildlife is starting to catch on in a big way—as is evidenced by the products that cater to this trend. Indeed, according to the recent National Gardening Association’s Lawn & Garden Survey, nine out of 10 households want to manage their lawns and gardens in an environmentally friendly way. Consumers are turning to all-natural repellents to keep unwanted pests from mowing down lawns and valuable plants. Eco-friendly repellents keep garden foes away and are guaranteed effective and safe for people, plants and pets.

Dave McAleer, president of Schrodt Designs of Dewitt, IA, says the company’s bat houses are really popular these days. “People are starting to take it on an individual basis—the responsibility of helping the environment in their own backyard.” The bat houses, retailing between $34.95 and $45.95, are a natural way to help control mosquitoes around you home, McAleer says.

Another Schrodt Designs product that’s selling well is the Mason Bee Lodge. These lodges give the non-aggressive, non-stinging worker bees places to dwell, McAleer says. “People put them in their garden to help grow their flowers. [The lodges are] where they’ll plant their eggs,” he says of the redwood lodges retailing for $38.95.

Whether you’re looking to add a couple of larger outdoor pieces to your shop, or want to simply experiment with new collections of garden-inspired products, makers of these items suggest finding goods representing a variety of price points. Also display them in ways that help your customers imagine how they’d look in and around their homes.

“I always try to merchandise like it’s my home,” says Paice, of Rosemary & Time. “Not everyone is visual, so they don’t get how it’ll all look together.”

And don’t forget to share customer feedback with your suppliers, says McAleer of Schrodt Designs. “Give your manufacturers and suppliers as much feedback as possible,” he says. “I know I would love to hear new ideas or input on how to tweak the products. You are hearing comments all day long that we on this end don’t always get to hear. Having that knowledge would really help us design and build better products for you.”

Small is Big

In the new economy, downsizing has quickly gained currency. Arguably nowhere has this trend been more visibly and beautifully executed than in the booming popularity of miniature and fairy gardens. A miniature garden is one which includes entire gardens executed on a small-sized scale. A flowerpot in this resized vision can be as tiny as an inch. Best of all for customers is the price point. Most miniature garden accessories are extremely easy on the pocketbook with prices averaging around $5. Fairy gardens with whimsical fairies and elves are also trending up. Linda Geho of Jeremie Corporation in Atlanta, GA, says the continued trend in downsizing and the fantastical elements of miniature gardens have created a perfect synergy for this new trend. “We all just want a little magic in our lives,” Geho says. Jeremie offers a large assortment of whimsical miniatures—from handcrafted decorative arbors, picks, tools, and urns to furniture, gazebos, cottages, and fairies. “A wide variety of themes and colors gives our retailers flexibility to choose whole collections or just the pieces that work for them,” Geho says. “And the handcrafted nature of our products adds charm and personality so important in fairy gardening.”

Apart from the price points, one of the wonderful things about miniatures, Geho points out, is that retailers don’t have to devote a lot of real estate in the store to get a big impact. “The investment is small, the shipping costs minimal, and displays can be simple or elaborate,” she says. “A gift shop can participate in the popularity of fairy gardens by simply offering garden fairies and miniature garden items. Tuck a mini birdbath pick into a pot with moss or pebbles, or place a garden fairy with a mini bench on a large stone for a simple display,” Geho adds.

Geho points out that some of the most magical scenes provide “hiding places” for fairies, and children love to imagine where they might be. Mini garden containers appeal not only to the fairy gardener, but also to urban dwellers and others just wanting to bring “a little of the outside” in, she adds.

Mouse over images below to view.

Heather Johnson Durocher

Durocher is a northern Michigan-based journalist who writes frequently about business for newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to USA Weekend, Woman’s Day, Parents and American Baby. Visit her website at HeatherDurocher.com

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