August 18, 2005 | General


BioCycle August 2005, Vol. 46, No. 8, p. 39
Washington state survey provides useful information when it comes to getting consumers to use recycled organics for best results.
Peter Erickson and Liz Fikejs

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS through-out the country are promoting use of compost and other forms of organic mulches on home lawns and gardens. They often need to know the current behaviors and attitudes of their residents. Do they use mulch in their gardens? And do they think mulch means they’ll need to water less? A recent consumer survey in the Seattle area provides a methodology and some data that may be useful elsewhere.
The benefits of compost and mulch have been chronicled in the pages of BioCycle and elsewhere; they include improved soil and plant health, weed suppression, and water conservation. Local governments often see additional benefits to a thriving compost and mulch market. In particular, strong markets for compost and mulch facilitate organics recycling and can help reduce consumer use of synthetic chemicals and pesticides. Despite these benefits, however, developing effective messages to market compost and mulch to a wide audience remains a challenge.
To learn more about consumer behaviors and attitudes related to mulch and develop new messages, Seattle Public Utilities and Cascadia Consulting Group partnered to conduct a customer survey at several lawn and garden centers in Seattle and King County, Washington. We conducted the survey in September 2004, during a month-long compost promotion through Northwest Natural Yard Days, which is a cooperative effort sponsored by numerous local governments and utilities in the region. The specific goals of our survey were two-fold: To learn whether or not householders use mulch; and To learn what extent they make, and are motivated by, the connection between mulching and using less water.
Our goals in designing the survey were to perform a sufficient number of surveys to allow reasonable confidence in our conclusions (at least 400) and to select stores that were representative of the type and distribution of stores in the region. This approach, although not as statistically robust as a comprehensive phone survey, was intended to provide us some useful information at a fraction of the cost. We identified four “big-box” lawn and garden stores and three independent nurseries that would have relatively high customer traffic and be distributed throughout Seattle and King County, Washington. We then worked with the store managers to gain permission to conduct the survey.
“Surveyor shifts” were selected in consultation with store managers to coincide with periods of maximum customer traffic. Accordingly, staff surveyed for a single, continuous four-hour period on either a Saturday or a Sunday at each of the selected stores. Survey staff stood near the garden center exits and approached exiting customers to ask up to three questions about mulching and water use. Early in each interaction, staff defined mulch by saying “For the purpose of this survey, mulch is compost, bark, wood chips, or leaves that lay on top of the soil.” We completed a total of 520 surveys during the 28 hours spent at the seven stores.
Analysis of results indicates that most customers surveyed (75%) reported using mulch on at least some of their garden beds. Interestingly, customers at independent nurseries were more likely to use mulch (81% reported using mulch) than were customers at big box store garden centers (64%).
Seattle Public Utilities promotes mulching to help residents conserve water. Because the Utility is interested in increasing the public’s use of mulch, a key goal of the survey was to learn whether residents would be more likely to use mulch if they knew they could water less. Results indicate that of the customers who didn’t use mulch, many (63%) reported they would be more likely to use mulch if they could water less. In particular, 80 percent of nursery customers and 48 percent of big box store customers reported they would be motivated by water use.
Customers who did report using mulch were also asked about the connection between mulching and saving water – whether they thought using mulch in the autumn would help them save water next summer. Nearly three-quarters of these customers (71%) believed that mulching would enable them to water less. Again, customers at the nurseries were more likely to answer yes than customers at the big box stores: 76 percent of nursery customers answer yes, whereas 62 percent of big box store customers answered yes.
About three-quarters of garden center shoppers surveyed in the Seattle area report using mulch in their gardens. Of these, most (71%) make a connection between mulching and water use. Still, this leaves a significant fraction of customers who either don’t mulch (24%) or do mulch but don’t fully understand the connection with saving water. The good news is that many of these customers (e.g., 63% of non-mulchers) report they would be more likely to mulch if they could water less. This finding suggests that local governments or mulch producers may find success – particularly at nurseries – by promoting mulch as a means of saving water.
Local governments and mulch producers can sometimes use less formal, low-cost survey techniques to learn about local resident attitudes and behaviors. By conducting a short, in-store customer survey with target consumers, valuable information can be collected at roughly half the cost of a phone survey. The limitations of using the in-store customer surveys – particularly the relatively narrow target audience, smaller number of surveyed customers, and need to keep the survey short – can also be advantageous if the goal is quick information from a particular consumer group. In any survey, however, it is also important to consider and avoid bias in the survey design, if at all possible.
Peter Erickson is with the Cascadia Consulting Group based in Seattle, and Liz Fikejs is with Seattle Public Utilities.

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