World Of Opportunity

The drought has affected just about everyone – even your humble assistant editor has resorted to showering with the aid of a timer and a spacious bucket for his pot plants. With water restrictions varying across the whole country retailers are facing a considerable challenge. Indeed, some are doing it very tough, but for others the drought can represent an opportunity. Tom Prince speaks to a selection of those ‘in the know’ about how the drought can be chance for diversification and expansion…

The sale and emphasis of water saving products in relation to gardening has changed considerably over the last 12 months, says Con Dekazos, National Marketing and Merchandising Manager for Danks. “In general, as water concerns deepen and demand increases, retailers have looked to equipment for domestic water recycling and use in order to offer consumers a solution for maintaining their gardens,” he said. “Many of these lines are now seen as a compulsory component of in-store stock.”

It comes as no surprise that many water saving products have always been available but with the drought underway they are now enjoying continued growth. Products like water crystals, soil wetters in all forms, blocks and bags of mulches, aqua spikes and water diverters have enjoyed growth. Strangely enough, sprinkler sales also increased as soon as it got really dry. “Either people use them illegally or they are utilising the water in the increasing number of tanks that are being installed,” said Con. “As we are all aware, this was once a country requirement rather than a metro/city living one.”

Indeed, the sale and supply of water tanks is fast accounting for a very high proportion of products from retailers – and many of these are outlets that have never sold this kind of product before.

The design and sizing of water tanks has also changed noticeably. Prior to the current drought conditions water tanks were considered very large above ground items. They now include ‘metro friendly’ tanks that range from small tanks that fit below house eves to bladders which can be installed under the home (depending on the type of property). Very small tanks that can be dug into the garden are also available.

An adjunct to tank sales is an increase in pumps. Again, the types of pumps and the price range has developed considerably over the last couple of years, resulting in an increase in sales of entry level pumps within general hardware outlets. These are sufficient for fulfilling normal household requirements and servicing general garden water tanks. Obviously they represent an increased sales opportunity within metro areas.

Another range not previously in great demand or sold in quantity are Water Saving Disks. These allow consumers to reduce water usage without major expense or change to their plumbing or tapware. They retail in six and nine litre flow restrictor packs (for showers only) and as combined water saving kits for showers, basins and kitchen sinks. Shower timers are also proving to be quite popular, including digital and hourglass designs. Some even come with suction heads for shower cubicle use.

David Oakley, National Marketing Manager for Bunnings, also has his finger on the pulse when it comes to water saving retail opportunities. Bunnings has seen an increased volume in self watering containers (e.g. self watering pots) that can greatly prolong watering intervals. Hose gun trigger nozzles have also been very popular – this assistant editor vividly remembers the panic buying quite some time ago on the last day before garden hose triggers became mandatory in parts of Victoria. Buckets of all descriptions have also taken off.

Naturally, greywater products are also increasing in popularity. The challenge for retailers is to educate customers about the various intricacies and regulatory complexities. Some ways of overcoming this include offering water workshops for DIYers as well as web based education. This is at least one method for informing buyers about more complex greywater treatment systems (see our ‘Plumbing Update’ in this issue).

Mack McVeigh, Nursery Manager, Bulleen Art and Garden is another who knows all too well the importance of adaptability and clever thinking during the drought. Water storing products like water crystals have become popular though obviously landscaping applications have not done so well. Compost bins, though not specifically a water saving product, have also become more prominent.

Mack is another who emphasises the importance of educating customers. One of his most common gems of advice to his green customers is to always determine if their soil is hydrophobic. This is done by pouring water which, if absorbed, shows that it is ok. If the soil repels water it is hydrophobic and will require wetting agents. Basic advice like this can go a long way to retaining customers. “It’s more about educating the customers to use their soil,” he said. “And education will result in more activity.”

Retailers should also educate their customers on the vital importance of mulch by explaining the differences between different applications. For example, there are short term mulches that break down quickly and to some extend even feed the soil. They are cheap, cover a big area, and perform their function rather well, but they might only last six to eight months. There are also long term mulches like pine nuggets, which last much longer. An important factor directly related to the increased popularity of mulch – and one which may be overlooked by retailers – is the incredible variety of mulches, and not just in function, but also in aesthetics. Mulches come in all manner of textures and colours and it is not uncommon for customers to go to considerable lengths to choose one that not only does the right job, but looks right too.

Incidentally, it also pays to increase one’s environmental awareness. More customers than ever are environmentally conscious which means that there is considerable value in organic promoting. Having a credible environmental endorsement also helps, which is why Bulleen Art And Garden makes no secret of the fact that it is Sustainable Gardening Australia (SGA) Certified.

Other drought time relevant categories that are popular include the already mentioned water tanks and drip irrigation systems. Again, education (or rather, explaining things in simple terms to often confused customers) is key here. An unusual but perfectly sensible range that compliments greywater applications is greywater suitable laundry detergent. This is usually biodegradable and less prone to leaving deposits with sensitive plants like Banksias. A common problem is that people are neglecting the importance of rotating their greywater. There are adapted pumps that can be placed in a bath that pump water out a window or the back door just for this purpose.

Ultimately, says Mack, a fundamental effect of the drought is that people are just gardening in a different way. Mack sells considerably more natives, and an added bonus is that people are then discovering how many fantastic natives there really are. The same also goes for drought tolerant plants. Some people are even questioning whether they actually need a lawn. A solution to this is drought tolerant varieties of lawn, such as tufting grass, or even artificial turf. If neither of these are viable then paving or decking is a realistic alternative.

Something not to be forgotten when issuing good advice is that many customers are far less knowledgeable than retailers. They could be breaking regulations without even realising it (such as council imposed greywater rules) so research and understanding for retailers is something you simply can never know enough of. “Know your product in depth,” says Mack. “A bucket of water from the shower won’t kill their plants.” Strange but true – some people need to be reassured.

One final area remains, and this is in the domain of relatively untapped ranges in this country. A brief perusal of the average category breakdowns per store in United Kingdom nurseries suggests that some categories which do quite well receive relatively little attention down here. One of these categories is in pets and aquatics and another – one that is surprisingly quiet when one considers the great pride Australians have for their native animals – is in wildlife, especially bird accessories.