rustic-pots-header-templateFor almost 1,500 years, the Yixing region of China has been renowned as the source of some of the finest stoneware ceramic products in the world. Perched on the outer reaches of the Yangtze River plains, the area features vast deposits of iron-rich dark clay.

The “Rustic” pottery tradition was among the first to emerge from the shadow of the teapot business, as these coarsely crafted pots were originally intended for local consumption only. The traditional shapes developed as various needs arose, ranging from tall jugs for water storage, to lower shapes for oil, to wider forms used for drying rice. Over time, these containers began to be re-purposed as planters, which eventually led to an entirely new industry in the area. As time passed, production techniques became more specialized, the aesthetic more refined, and a classic tradition of simple, gorgeous, handmade (and often enormous) pottery emerged.WedgingA flower pot always starts with the clay. In this particular workshop, different clays from several local mines are blended together by experienced clay makers to produce a proprietary mix which offers the perfect combination of flexibility, durability and structural integrity necessary for these giant pieces. The mixed clay is then “wedged” or kneaded by apprentices, removing any last air bubbles, before being passed on to the pot craftsmen.Rustic Step 1The wedged clay is combined into long snake-like rolls, which are then slightly flattened by hand.Rustic Step 2These flat rolls are then attached to a previously prepared pot bottom, which includes an inch or two of the pot’s vertical walls. The clay is gradually coiled around the pot, continuously layering upon itself as the walls of the pot rise.Rustic Pottery Construction Step 3As the coil loops around the body of the pot, the craftsmen knead the the sections together by hand, progressing up the pot inch-by-inch.Rustic Pottery Construction Step 4After the pot has reached a certain height, the workers will begin the process of smoothing and shaping the walls of the pots – the smoothing is done with a series of small scrapers, while the shape is gently adjusted with wooden paddles and mallets.

The pots are then allowed to dry a bit to enhance their stability, after which the workers add another long coil to the top of the pot. This process repeats itself over the course of several days until the pot reaches its final height and form.

Eventually, the rim of the pot will be finished by a senior craftsman, and the pot will be allow to slowly, and thoroughly, dry for several days. This slow process is critical for large items, and ensures that structural cracks do not form in in the body of the pot.

Once the pots are “bone dry”, they are glazed in one of a handful of traditional, earthy glaze colors. Typically, these glazes are applied by hand in several layers,  with an uneven application around the pot.Rustic Pottery GlazingOnce the gaze is dried, the pots are loaded into enormous brick ovens, called “kilns”, which bake the pots at temperatures approaching 2,200 degrees. Often generations-old, these multi-chambered kilns are heated with wood fires, which are carefully tended to precisely control the temperatures and flow of air within the firing chambers. This is critically important, as the final colors of each glaze depend on them being fired within specific temperature ranges.Stoking the KilnFollowing a multi-day firing, the kilns are allowed to slowly cool for several more days before the door are opened. At this point, the colors of the glazes are revealed, as are the variations (drips, burn marks, hot spots, etc) that truly make each pot a unique work of art. These variations are thought to be part of the charm and beauty of these magnificent flower pots, and are not considered flaws. Kiln Being OpenedThese giant rustic planters are among the most durable that we sell, and are safe for year-round use in all climates, assuming that basic precautions are taken.

Classic Urn - Snap ShotIn the January, 2015 issue of Green Profit magazine, Jennifer Polanz pointed out that in the current marketplace, “porch pots” have the potential to help boost your off-season sales throughout the winter months if you take the time to properly merchandise the category. A few of the top ideas:

  • Conduct design workshops in which you offer customer a wide range of suitable planters, greenery, and accessories.
  • Have your staff design and build amazing porch pot arrangements – use social media to share them with your customers and drive traffic to your store.
  • Rotate the greenery and accessory offerings as Winter progresses – Jingle bells may be a great addition in December, but they won’t drive sales in February!

Here’s a link to the complete article.

Best wishes from all of us for a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Square Orchid Pot- Violet - SnapIt’s a funny thing that we, as a society, have developed of tradition of celebrating love every February 14th by giving those most precious to us a handful of dead flowers.

It really seems that a more fitting horticultural celebration of our everlasting love would be to present them with something alive, something that has a future beyond the next 6 or 8 days – something very much like a potted plant.

If your garden center already has a floral department, you’re probably already pushing bouquet after bouquet out your doors in the week leading up to Valentines, and you are obviously well aware of the massive potential that this holiday offers. But if you’re not offering a selection of potted plants as well, you could still be leaving a chunk of potential profit on the table.

If you don’t have a florist, then Valentine’s represents an incredible opportunity for you to get an early leg up on your spring season. Most likely, you’re already have staff on hand working to prepare your center for the season, and stocking your shelves with suitable plants and containers will give your team something to sell to the swarms of flummoxed husbands.

  • Blooming roses are an obvious selection, but unlike the stereotyped “dozen long stems”, they can last forever with proper care.
  • WEB - Violet Rainbow Cone Pot with Roses - SNAPOrchids are a great choice – they’re gorgeous, they color-coordinate with the pinks, whites, and purples of the season, and everyone loves them.
  • Cacti in brightly colored pots are a popular option for folks with brown thumbs.
  • Dwarf Jade Bonsai are an elegant, sophisticated selection, especially if your market trends towards the upscale.
  • Use your imagination – just about any plant can be turned into a “Valentine’s” offering simply by dropping it into a seasonally appropriate container – look for pinks, red, purple and white glazes.
  • Make sure that your customers know that you’re a Valentine’s destination – even if you’re just putting out email blasts and Facebook updates, your customers need to be made aware that you’re a better holiday option than 1-800-FLOWERS.
  • Some of your customers are still going to insist on bouquets – be sure to stock a range of pots and containers for their arrangements. Their significant others will appreciate a container that doesn’t look just like the one at the grocery store floral counter.

The houzz.com slideshow below has some tremendous ideas for Fall container plantings. Preparing and selling pre-planted containers such as these can be an especially great way for independent garden centers to separate themselves from the big boxes, as this is a level of service that just can’t be scaled. While most of the pots shown in the slides aren’t ours, we do have very similar items to most of them on hand for quick shipment.

Check out this great article from houzz.com – it’s got some great pointers on incorporating container gardens and pottery into ground-based gardens. Be sure to read the comments too, as there are a bunch of nuggets there too.

I had a conversation with a potential customer at a trade show last week who was lamenting his decision to finally bring in a direct-import container of pottery two years ago. He walked me through his struggles step by step:

  • He felt that he had grown his pottery sales to the point that he would have no trouble moving through the 1,200 or so pots that would fill the container, and placed an order for a wide range of pre-assorted pallets, which would offer him a broad spectrum of shapes, colors and sizes to fill his shelves – this was all good, he didn’t fall into the trap of ordering the cheapest goods possible, which often means getting dozens of sets of the same items.
  • He prepared his pricing for the new pottery program using his standard margin structures.
  • The pots arrived in good condition, he unpacked, priced and stocked the shelves.
  • The pots sold like crazy – by the midway point of  the season he had already moved virtually his entire container. The sell-through rates were almost double anything that he had ever experienced.
  • He came back to the pottery vendor for an in-season re-fill order, and discovered that the supplier didn’t offer such a thing.
  • He found an alternate source that had inventory on hand for him, and placed a huge re-order of open-stock goods, expecting his tremendous sell-through rates to continue.
  • He applied his standard margins to the pots
  • His pottery sales dropped to less than half of their normal level.
  • He ended the season with an enormous inventory of left-over pots and no budget to reinvigorate the department.
  • The following season his pottery sales stayed low – at the time of our conversation (October, about 17 months after the re-order), he was still working though pots left over from the re-stocking the previous May.

Drying Room copy

Why did his pottery sales stop in the middle of the season?

The problem wasn’t with the replacement product – the quality and variety were great. His merchandising was sound, and the product was kept clean and salable. The weather continued to be good, and his overall sales maintained – only the pottery department dropped through the floor. He couldn’t identify any other variables that had changed such as competitor specials or sales.

Water Jugs copy

What went wrong?

As you would expect, when he ordered in a direct-import full container of pots, he realized significant savings from his previous pottery purchases. When he applied his standard pottery markup to the DI goods, he filled his shelves with pots that had retail prices about 60% below the levels that his customers had come to expect. He failed to recognize that the DI pricing offered the opportunity for increasing his margins – keeping his retails in the same general range as they had been would have afforded him incredibly enhanced profits.

While his customers got great prices on the imported pots, they also quickly got accustomed to the lower prices – and rebelled when the more expensive domestic goods replaced the DI pots on the shelves.

“Passing the savings along to the customer” can be an effective marketing concept, but as in this case, it can also paint you into a corner. It can change customer expectations and behavior, and leave you without any good options for rebuilding margins when circumstances change. While it can be especially effective with commodity goods or bulk items, good flower pots are sold on other merits. Quality pots are essentially a fashion item, and as such will support solid margins if your pricing strategies allow it.

We’ve been out doing some comparison shopping over the past few days, part of an annual rite of summer in which we look at what the competition has in the marketplace. We’ve visited dozens of garden centers, craft stores and national chain outlets, and we’ve been blown away by the condition in which we’ve found some of the chain store pottery departments. This post will focus on “Standard” terra cotta pots, which many garden centers ignore as a commodity item, rather than considering them as yet another way to differentiate themselves from the big boxes.

Given the condition in which we found many of the big box pottery departments, it should be no problem for a typical garden center to offer a superior shopping experience. A couple of  examples:

This particular disaster is from a Wal*Mart outside of St. Louis, MO. It’s not really surprising that Wal*Mart is selling cruddy low-grade red clay (note the inconsistencies in the color of the pots and saucers – in standard red clay pottery, this is indicative of a producer isn’t firing all of its pots to the same temperature – taking shortcuts, essentially). I am surprised that they apparently assume that their customers will be excited enough to buy the pots even though the pots are covered in mold and dirt.

The second example was spotted on the shelves of a K-Mart store, and while the pots have been cleaned, they also demonstrate  the lack of quality found at the lower end of the red clay market. It’s easy to see the cracks in the pots on the right, and it’s inexcusable that a K-Mart employee hasn’t pulled these broken pots from the shelves – Again, they’re implying that they believe that their customers are dumb enough to pay $.79 for an already-broken saucer.

Also of note in this photo are the black spots on several of the saucers. This too indicates that shortcuts were taken during the manufacturing process, as the black is a chemical impurity in the clay which gradually leeches to the surface of the pot or saucer. A high-quality terra cotta pot would have been crafted from a clay that had these and other impurities removed, and would have a smooth, uniform finish. The  photo below shows another example of the black markings migrating to the surface of a K-Mart pot.

There are several points to take away from these photos:

  • First, Selling ugly red clay can undermine the credibility of the rest of your pottery department.
  • Second, be sure that you are carrying high-quality red clay – your customer will recognize the difference.
  • Third, if you insist on selling crappy red clay, at least show your customers the respect of cleaning your pots before you put them on the shelves, and for god’s sake, don’t put broken pots out at your full retail price.

Fountain SnapshotIt’s amazing how easy it can be to impact the sales of large planters in your pottery department when you take the time and effort to also merchandise them as fountain components.

For many garden centers it can make more sense to carry a range of large pots and a limited offering of fountain supplies than it does to invest in an inventory of complete fountains. This strategy has several advantages:

  • Your customers have more options and more outlets for their creativity – being able to customize a fountain to their specific tastes and size requirements is a great selling point.
  • It’s easier to control your inventory – selling fountains, pumps and basins ala carte gives you flexibility in your purchasing.
  • It’s generally cheaper to purchase components from your suppliers than it is a complete fountain kit – but your customers don’t necessarily know that, which allows you to build you margins in the category while remaining price competitive.
  • As long as you have some pots on hand, you have a potential fountain.

Here’s a terrific article how-to article and video from “Fine Gardening” magazine which walks you through the step-by-step of building a fountain out of a planter. This technique will work with planters of any size or shape, although we recommend using a purpose-built in-ground fountain basin instead of the tub / cinder block / grate combo they use in the video.

Ceramo 2014 Christmas Grid