Everyone’s heard the old wive’s tale that talking to plants helps them grow better. But now retailers have teamed up with an app offering the green fingered a more practical way to help their gardens flourish, including speaking to over 100 horticulture experts via its chat service.

The SmartPlant app provides customers with a free premium membership service, which includes monthly care advice for all the plants uploaded to their ‘digital garden’ (from a library of 20,000 specimens). Once a customer scans a plant with the app, they will receive product recommendations from their preferred garden centre, as well as discounts.

Britain’s largest independent garden centre, Longacres, is one retailer to have signed up. By promoting the service it hopes to save staff time as users direct questions through the app, as well as upselling products and building customer loyalty. Longacres has four sites across Kent and Surrey, and last year reported sales of £32 million.

"Digital innovation like this in the gardening industry is long overdue,” said Michael Ainley, head of IT at Longacres. “The technology is already helping our customers to look after their plants and making it easier to keep in-touch with Longacres garden centres.”

There’s no question that the UK is a nation of garden lovers. Adults spend around £1.5 billion each year on plants for their gardens and there are a total of 2,300 garden centres and retail nurseries across the country, according to the Horticultural Trades Association. An analysis by the Garden Retail Market Report 2014 said the sector is worth around £5 billion, so there is certainly scope to further increase sales using digital platforms – with such services also providing valuable data to retailers on who their customers are and their specific horticultural interests.

Demographic appeal

SmartPlant’s app has had 320,000 downloads, mostly from 25-35 year-olds. It originally launched as a plant identification app, similar to the Shazam concept, and is now developing a voice recognition service for Amazon Alexa. Others company’s using it include Orchard Supply Hardware owned by Lowe’s in the US and The Telegraph.

However, some customers may still prefer the fast-to-face interaction of talking to gardening experts. For example, Wyevale Garden Centres’ customers are a much narrower demographic than, say, supermarket shoppers.

“Demographically, our customers are a little older, as are some of our own colleagues and they love horticulture and a long dwell time prompts a conversation,” according to Martin Alden, head of commercial development at Wyvale Garden Centres, speaking at RBTE’s advisory board meeting. Although Alden said he would be interested in using this kind of technology.

“We also have to take the colleagues on the journey,” he says. “They are the ones using the technology. If you don’t take them on the journey and present them with the shiny new stuff without consultation, they may reject it because change is different.”

The challenge for SmartPlant and garden centres, will be whether the success of its app can translate into the in-store experience.

If it can, then both it and retailers stand to harvest the rewards.