All the rage

Features - Industry Trends

Succulents are increasingly popular plants that sell themselves, but garden retailers can drive more profits by offering unusual plants, combinations and planters.

October 12, 2016
Neil Moran
Courtesy of Mulhall’s

Garden centers are finding creative ways to arrange succulents to help increase sales of these drought tolerant plants — not that they need much help in reaching the cash register.

“The market is strong for succulents, and I see it continuing,” says Byron Martin, owner of Logee’s Greenhouses, a purveyor of succulents and other specialty plants.

Succulents look beautiful arranged in a shallow terra cotta container. However, limiting displays to a few styles of planters can cause missed opportunities for sales, especially to consumers looking for something new and different.

“We grow succulents in 2-,4-, and 6-inch pots, but it’s the displays we have on hand that help drive sales,” says Megan Rodkin, owner of Succulent Gardens, a wholesale/retail nursery located in Castroville, Calif.

Designing with succulents

Succulents have diverse applications. They can be used to make floral arrangements for a wedding or dinner date, as topiary garden art, as living wreaths for the holidays, miniature fairy gardens, and even hanging baskets. They’re also planted in landscapes, of course, and are especially popular in the more water-starved areas of the country.

Garden centers can contract with designers or train staff to arrange succulents in a variety of ways, including the ideas mentioned above. Consumers in turn may either be inspired to buy potted succulents and create mixed containers themselves, or buy the actual arrangements on hand.

“If you have a few finished products and have the elements around them for merchandising, it provides the inspiration customers need to put together what they want to do themselves,” Rodkin says.

Designing with succulents isn’t particularly difficult, which may be a testimonial to the plant itself.

“The nice thing about succulents is they’re not intimidating,” Rodkin says. “When I have free time, I put together arrangements and they come out pretty good. It’s not because of me, it’s because the succulents are easy to work with.”

Mulhall’s recently hosted a Cacti Show, a trunk show-like event where local growers could showcase their best, most unusual plants.
Courtesy of Mulhall’s

Still, many people simply don’t have the time or space to create succulent arrangements. Garden centers can provide this service for people as a way to drive sales.

“We have design services, so we can do finished products for people,” says Rodkin, who contracts with a designer to keep up with demand. “We do living walls, containers for events, and other designs; I have [designers] come in and spec it out 12 weeks in advance.” She says holiday wreaths are best-sellers. Many people stop in to purchase floral containers they can use as gifts, as well.

“Succulent container gardens are becoming an alternative to floral arrangements,” she says. “Some folks bring succulent containers to dinner dates instead of cut flowers.”

At Logee’s, Desert Rose (Adenium hybrids) is their most popular succulent at the moment and includes several cultivars like ‘Sweetheart,’ ‘Black Window’ and ‘Golden Carrot.’ Their customers are also flocking to Agave ‘Blue Glow’, Agave ‘Blue Flame’, Euphorbia tirucalli, Agave attenuata, Echeveria ‘Perle von Nürnberg,’ Echeveria ‘Lola’ and Aeonium ‘Sunburst.’

There are many ways to learn the art of designing with succulents. No doubt you have creative employees who need little instruction on how to design with succulents. If not, there are good books on the subject, including Debra Baldwin’s “Designing with Succulents” or “Planting Designs for Cactus & Succulents” by Sharon Asakawa and John Bagnasco. You can also find classes on the subject at the online garden portal, Garden Tribe, or check out some design ideas on the Succulent Gardens website.

Who’s buying succulents?

People of all ages are excited about succulents, according to Mick Mulhall, retail general manager at Mulhall’s, a large retail garden center in Omaha, Neb. Mulhall’s held an event dedicated to succulents, similar to a trunk show, where vendors brought their best and most unusual succulents to display. People of all ages attended the event.

“There was a very broad mix of young and older people, including many who had never gardened,” Mulhall says. “The event was a fun thing we did; I don’t think it really drove sales.”

Succulents had already brought in strong sales for Mulhall's. Sales for their cacti and succulents are running in the tens of thousands of units, he says, and they’ve seen an increase in sales of about 150 percent in the past six months.

Tiffany Polli, sales manager at Succulent Gardens, echoed Mulhall's sentiments, saying the appeal of succulents knows no age limits. She says kids are fascinated with them, and college kids pick them up in the fall and take them back to their dorm rooms. She says she also has one succulent devotee who is over 100 years old, who comes in and picks up plants to add to her collection. Polli says what attracts consumers to succulents is a sense of success they experience growing them.

“People say, ‘I can’t cook, I can’t do art, I can’t garden,’ then they see they can grow succulents, and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can,’” Polli says. “It improves their quality of life, and that’s a neat thing to be part of. The market for succulents will continue to increase as people discover them and how easy they are to care for. Once folks try them, they seem to get hooked.”

Marketing and selling succulents

Mulhall's marketing plan consists of engaging with their target market on the social media channels they’ve come to rely on: Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Not only are the staff engaging effectively with their target market, succulent fanatics are chatting with each other, a testimonial for the enthusiasm for these types of plants.

Succulent Gardens inspires customers with succulent displays both in containers and in landscapes.
Courtesy of Succulent Gardens

“Not only do we like to talk about [succulents], some of the people that come in to purchase them like to talk about them among themselves,” Mulhall says.

For the event that was held at Mulhall's, staff did some street level marketing as well, distributing artful posters created by Mulhall’s own design team to coffee shops and other trendy hangouts around the city. During the actual event, they engaged their audience by bringing in a coffee cart in the morning and a taco truck at noon. Prior to the event taking place, they had invited succulent enthusiasts to bring in their favorite succulent or cactus display and enter it in a contest. Entries were judged by other attendees on “amazingness,” with gift cards as prizes. In the afternoon they hosted a well-attended terrarium workshop.

Managing growth

With the growth in sales of cacti and succulents so strong, it is important for Mulhall's to properly track the succulents going out the front door.

Individual plants, displayed near containers, are appealing right now with the DIYers that come into Mulhall's. Their most popular varieties include the string of pearls, Sansevieria, Echeveria, hen and chicks, hanging succulents and jade.

“If we sell string of pearls that fast, we should stock more of them,” Mulhall says. “Demand changes quickly, and the ones that are popular with customers aren’t always the ones staff have selected. We have to track items at the cultivar level and ignore some of our prejudices of what we think will be popular.”

Neil is a horticulturist and freelance writer based in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.