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Trends in plant world - and beyond

Last week I attended the Tropical Plants Industry Expo in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It isn’t just for Southern gardeners. The vendors and exhibitors are mostly wholesalers (just a few retailers) including 6,000 attendees from 45 states and 34 countries. They influence and sell to stores all over the United States where most people buy plants and plant-related products.

I luxuriated in the balmy weather outside and the exhilarating plant displays inside. As a gardener, my heart beats faster seeing brilliant promotions for “new, better, hotter” products and plants.

As a garden writer I tried to focus differently. I looked for garden design ideas and unusual plants to write about and recommend for Western New York gardens and containers next summer. I was impressed with the strength of the market for houseplants and interior design using plants. I also found fascinating some trend talks about how plant producers and sellers are thinking about us, the gardeners and buyers who are their target market.

Finding trends, creating trends

A featured speaker was Max Luthy, director of trends and insights for I expected to hear mostly about the year’s hottest color (purple) and what plant types are popular (still succulents, air plants, tropical foliage plants).

But Luthy dug deeper.

Here’s the definition of trend: “A new manifestation in behavior, attitude or expectations.”

But how can a buyer figure out which plant pot or wind chime will charm shoppers next year? The answer is not asking them.

“Consumers don’t know what they are going to want,” Luthy said.

After a human’s core needs are met, it’s up for grabs: What will move her, attract him and get them to buy next year? What will become the must-have of the future?

It’s a common assumption that necessity breeds invention. Needs or changing conditions drive sales: A cold winter increases sales of boots or antifreeze. However, in a kind of reversal, an innovation can create perceived need; a new thing often changes human behavior or expectations.

For instance, Uber has changed the expectation and level of patience for people wanting transportation in some markets. No longer must you stand in the street, waving your arms, on a rainy night in New York or Chicago to compete for a taxi; now you call Uber on the cell and choose the closest car.

Another example is the now ubiquitous cellphone – an innovation that we didn’t know we needed. But what changes it produced. It led to the relatively new expectation, even for older folks, that we must be able to be reached at all times. I can’t be in the woods or the garden without somebody saying: “OMG, I couldn’t get you! Where were you?” (Remember being able to disappear?)
Our speaker also mentioned how an innovation can even influence ethics: Tom’s Shoes (one pair donated for every pair you buy) boosted the expectation that our purchases can also do good work in the world.

Not just demographics

First, about those millennials – none of whom is willing to be grouped and labeled: Per trend watchers, we are entering a time of “post-demographic consumerism.” Just as I’m quite different from many other baby boomers, every millennial or Gen X or Y or Z (yes, there’s a Gen Z coming) doesn’t fit in a matched set. Instead, the analysts are talking post-demographics.
What drivers of change could be stronger than age-group expectations? If your age group doesn’t define you too well, what does?

Specifically, Luthy cited “urbanization” and the “global brain” (how we can know instantly what’s happening or what’s selling across the world) as forces that have changed reality. After that, “tribe factoring” trumps demographics. Your tribe is the people with whom you have the most in common, whether the commonality includes values, activities, geographical proximity or goals. It could be your yoga friends, fellow travelers, animal lovers, do-it-yourself folks, crafters, science-fiction geeks, political activists, mothers with preschool kids, collectors or gardeners.

For the wholesaler selling to your garden center or box store, and for the garden center buyer choosing plants and products, what follows from “tribe factoring?” In the gardening world it may be easier than in other commodities. At least the gardening tribe members start with plants and gardening in common.

But then, among gardeners, there are so many subgroups: DIY types, new vegetable growers, aging gardeners seeking the lowest maintenance shrubs or easy container gardening and raised beds, the Instagram/home decorating crowd, herb gardeners, young parents wanting super-foods, native plant and pollinator advocates.

A large tribe now comprises new homeowners and parents (dare I say millennials?) who want nearly instant landscapes but also want to grow organic fruit and vegetables with their children. In our region – mecca for garden tourism – an identifiable tribe seeks ornamental plants for maximum impact at a certain time of year, perhaps for a garden walk or tour. What diversity in their wants and priorities.

Quite the buyers’ dilemma, eh?

Other trends appear to be influential across the broad marketplace:

• Ambient wellness is a quest for a small group at the top of the health pyramid, the fortunate ones, who prefer products – from furniture to lighting to devices – with extra health and wellness benefits. In the plant world those choices might be living walls, terrariums, orchid collections or water gardens within home décor.

• Inner journeys are important to larger numbers of people within a variety of demographics, expressed in several ways. The inner journey could be sought through an ancestry website, walking the Appalachian Trail or any religious or spiritual pursuit.

• A global monoculture clearly influences cuisine, jewelry, music and all sorts of décor. With the warning to avoid disrespectful appropriation of any culture’s iconography, designers and marketers are openly embracing the goods and styles of many countries – from “green” coffee to the crafts of 10,000 villages.

Where do we see our individual selves in this complex world? What can businesses, from clothing designers to plant growers, do with such trend analyses so they can offer the most irresistible products next year? I say, let’s offer up some respect for the sellers’ and buyers’ challenges as they try to anticipate our dreams. Nothing is simple anymore.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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