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Industry Talk: Paul Ecke III

The leader of the eponymous poinsettia company discusses trends and merchandising.

Paul Ecke Ranch, based in Encinitas, Calif., has been a poinsettia breeder, producer of cuttings and grower since the early 20th century. The company’s The Flower FieldsÆ brand also produces cuttings of spring plants. Super Floral Retailing Editor in Chief Cynthia L. McGowan talked to Paul Ecke III, chairman and CEO of Paul Ecke Ranch since 1991, about poinsettia trends and how to merchandise the plants more effectively.

Q. What are key changes you’ve noticed in consumer buying habits in poinsettias over the years?
People are getting better quality plants in the various outlets and stores. The big-box guys have gotten better at taking care of poinsettias. I think we still have a long way to go, but they’ve gotten better.
I think new varieties like ‘Prestige’ have upped the quality at the consumer level. I have people telling me all the time that, “My poinsettia’s still blooming, and it’s Easter.”
The painted poinsettia trend is a change, at least in the United States. The purists don’t like painted poinsettias, but consumers seem to, and, therefore, we think it’s a good idea. We have lots of new novelty poinsettias, like ‘Jester’ and ‘Shimmer Surprise’, stuff that is a little bit wild and wacky compared to the traditional red, flat-bract poinsettias, and when you add painted poinsettias into that mix, we’re appealing to the younger consumer, which I think is really important.

Q. Do you think those kinds of trends—the novelty and painted poinsettias—are going to continue?
I think there’s always going to be a place for the novelty poinsettias. In Europe, it got all the way up to 25 percent of all poinsettias sold were painted. It’s dropped down to more like 15 percent, so it clearly was a fad for a while, and I think that’s what’s going to happen here. We’re probably going to have growth in painted poinsettias for a year or two, and then it’ll come back down to something stable.

Q. Can you say how many poinsettia plants were sold during the 2005 holiday season?
We think somewhere around 60 to 70 million pots were sold in the United States. When we plot our data against U.S. Department of Agriculture data against anecdotal data, that’s what we come up with.

Q. Is the market for poinsettias growing?
It is the biggest flowering potted crop in the United States, so it’s a big market already. I would say it’s slow growth. Maybe in the 1 to 5 percent range.

Q. Is red still the dominant color?
It is absolutely the dominant color. Seventy-five percent are red. I believe that the other colors are always going to be popular up to a point, but I’d be surprised if red dropped below 65 percent or 70. Generation X, Y, Z, and whatever comes after Z, I think they are going to be more open to some of the novelty plants.

Q. What is the most important factor when consumers are choosing poinsettias? Is it color?
Color is obviously important, but to me it’s just the quality of the plant and whether it looks healthy. That is one of the reasons that ‘Prestige’ is so popular—it is a very tough plant that can survive the transportation channel and still look good for the consumer.

Q. What size poinsettias sell the best?
The 6-inch pinched plant, which is one cutting with multiple flowers, is by far the most popular size. But we’re seeing more variation, which I encourage growers to do, because you’re not selling a commodity that you can buy anywhere when you grow a different product form.

Q. What merchandising advice do you have for retailers who sell poinsettias?
Simple, easy things. Take them out of the box when they arrive. Ideally, take them out of the sleeves when they arrive because the plants are under stress when they’re in the dark, in the boxes, in the sleeves. Water them if they need watering, but don’t overwater, and put them in a place that is comfortable for humans (not too hot nor too cold).
If retailers have damaged plants, broken and bruised plants, get rid of them. Don’t try to sell them for a discount price. I see that all too often, and I just want to cringe. If you go into the produce section of your supermarket, you’ll see some stuff that’s marked down slightly, but you’ll rarely see rotten apples or completely damaged potatoes or avocados. They throw that stuff away. They do not display it in the store. It’s not appealing to a consumer. And why they do it with poinsettias and other plant material, I will never know.

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