Strategy -- Cultivating Growth -- Gift Business Is Fertile Ground For Seed Company

Cecil Solly - the man who gave gardening advice to Seattleites for more than three decades - probably never imagined that his envelopes of flower and vegetable seeds would one day be packaged in little window-box planters, complete with instructions and tiny bags of soil, and sold in Bloomingdale's. But his grandson thinks he would have liked the idea.

Solly, a horticulturist trained in England, founded Solly's Choice Seed Co. in 1919 in the Skagit Valley and went on to gain local fame as a gardening expert with his own newspaper column and radio show.

And, although he founded a company that became one of the region's largest seed sellers, his grandson, Bruce Solly, said that Solly was, above all, a great marketer.

"I look at him as a marketing genius," said Bruce Solly, now vice president of sales at Solly's Choice. "All he sold was a seed package, but he marketed a whole image around the packet. He got out and promoted himself and the company."

That's why Solly thinks his grandfather would have approved of the company's new push into the gift business. With the market for garden-variety seeds stagnant, Solly's Choice six years ago started experimenting with window-box gardens, self-contained gardens sold in attractively packaged wooden boxes about the size of a loaf of bread. Soon, they were being sold in upscale gift shops and department stores.

The gift line, which now includes books for children and hand soap for gardeners and is sold at such places as Bloomingdale's and Williams-Sonoma, accounts for about $2 million, or about two-thirds, of the company's approximately $3 million in annual sales.

Solly said the gift line is the reason he expects annual sales for the company to grow to about $10 million in the next three to five years. That growth will come from adding new products - all of which will continue to have a botanical theme - and paying lots of attention to the finer points of marketing, including package design.

It's a far cry from the days when product development meant coming up with new types of tomato seeds and marketing meant putting seed-packet racks in grocery stores.

"We're becoming more of a design and packaging company," said Craig Calvert, Solly's Choice president. "Product development has become a major consideration. . . . We think the real future for growth is in the gift industry."

Solly's Choice is now owned by a group of local private investors, including Calvert. Cecil Solly sold the company in the early 1950s. He died in 1965. Bruce Solly is not a shareholder.

The company's move into gift products and new distribution channels comes none too soon. Though baby boomers supposedly have dug into gardening as part of the new "nesting" lifestyle, Calvert said the seed business itself is not growing relative to the mushrooming interest in gardening. Gardeners today don't have the patience to grow their flowers and vegetables from seed, he said. Instead, they buy bedding plants - a much more expensive, but quicker, way to fill in a garden.

"Because we're a society of convenience, we don't like to wait," Calvert said. "The proliferation of bedding plants is a big phenomenon."

Sales from Solly's seed division now make up only 10 percent to 15 percent of the company's total sales, Calvert said. The seeds are for flowers and vegetables meant to be grown in Western Washington and Oregon and compete with several other regional seed companies.

Another 20 percent of sales come form the company's turf and grass division. Solly's Choice mixes grass-seed blends and sells them, along with lawn-care equipment, throughout Western Washington. Customers include golf courses, parks departments and schools.

Calvert says the company will stick to its roots in the seed business and continue to sell seeds for home gardeners, as well as grass seeds and turf. But he says it makes good business sense to tie the company's future growth to its gift line.

"We've found a big market with young urban professionals who live in condos," said Calvert, adding that retirees living in small apartments also like the window gardens since the gardens often remind them of backyard gardens they once cultivated. "People like to watch things grow."

The gift business is year-round, while 90 percent of regular seed sales come in March, April and May. Seed sales also can be hurt by such factors as weather. Calvert said sales were slow this year because people put off buying seeds for much of the cold, wet spring.

"Before we got into gifts, we'd go for eight or nine months with very little income," Calvert said. "So getting into gifts was a twofold idea: to expand the seed market and get more cash flow."

Solly's Choice gifts sell especially well in fall and early winter as Christmas gifts. And, although the company this month is removing its seed racks from grocery stores - the seed season essentially is over - Solly is busy attending Christmas gift shows throughout the country.

Interest in the gift line at trade shows this month "has been outstanding," Solly said. "Our sales for this Christmas season are going to be at least at last year's levels."

This year, Solly's Choice gifts will be sold in Christmas catalogs put out by L.L. Bean and Recreational Equipment Inc., among others. Although window gardens may not be the sort of Christmas gift shoppers might expect to find at REI, Jerry Watt, buyer for gifts and books, said the window gardens are big sellers at Christmas time.

"This will be the third year we've had them in the stores and in the catalog," Watt said. "They're a real nice gift item, and we've had real good sales with them."

The window-box gardens, which retail for about $12, are the company's best-selling gifts. They come in wood planters that are approximately 1 foot long, 4 inches deep and 4 inches wide. Among the most popular are herb gardens that come with seeds for parsley, chives and thyme; mint gardens, containing peppermint, spearmint and lemon balm; the "Small Urban Salad Garden, containing a mixture of basil, lettuces and spinach; and the "Purrfect Garden," containing catnip.

Other items in the gift line include small, lavishly illustrated children's books about plants, which come with seeds; wildflower seed mixes sold in cans decorated with romantic illustrations of fairies and flowers; and several types of hand soap sold in the same fancy tins.

Solly said the company has plenty of other gift ideas on the drawing board, including wall clocks containing small planters and gift boxes decorated with plant illustrations. The point is for all gift lines to have some botanical theme - a good marketing angle, he says, considering the public's current interest in environmentalism.

The gift line already is being sold in Western Europe and Canada, and Solly says that Japanese retailers have shown interest. Solly said the company also is in licensing negotiations with Disney, Warner and Universal Studios to sell Solly gifts, primarily window gardens, with themes based on movies and television shows.