Editor’s note: Only responses from garden centers that sell houseplants are included in this report.
It’s no surprise that garden centers saw stellar sales in their houseplant departments during 2020 as COVID-19 had customers spending more time at home. Building on the momentum driven by plant parents, biophilic design trends and plant collectors, the houseplant craze was driven to new heights last year.
In March, we polled more than 250 independent garden center owners and managers in the U.S. and Canada to see how houseplant popularity has hit their stores.
Read on to see how demand, sales, prices and more have changed since last year.
— Kate Spirgen, editor
The houseplant hype
Features - 2021 Houseplant Report | Trends
As new-era houseplant hobbyists green up their homes, garden centers and greenhouses gear up to meet the welcomed demand.
The ‘70s are back and they brought the houseplant trend with them. Indoor plants are no longer reserved for grandma’s sunroom, but rooms in every part of the house. Or, for some, all over an apartment. Because of this, the green industry has seen an influx of houseplant hunters old and young. “It’s kind of like the sneaker people — they’re just waiting for next year’s line to come out,” Justin Hancock says.
As head of Costa Farms’ brand and consumer marketing, Hancock is responsible for the company’s creative efforts — plant tag designs, digital marketing, social media, website management, consumer analyzation and more. In today’s digital age, it is safe to say he is on the front line of knowing who wants what and why.
Holli Schippers, an industry veteran of 25-plus years is too. Initially starting in perennials, trees and shrubs, Schippers now serves as the houseplant and seasonal manager at Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, Washington. There, she continues the nursery’s 73-year legacy, where it has been “crazy and insanely busy in everything this past year,” she says.
The houseplant trend has interested new clientele, but the plants themselves are no longer only for looks and home décor. Now, they are part of a greater focus on lifestyle, too. In fact, Schippers says about two-thirds of customers who visit Sunnyside seek out plants that clean the air.
“I think they’ve come back because of people wanting to be healthier,” Schippers says. “What I get is, ‘What can I use for air-purifying plants?’ That is constant, constant, constant. People want to clean the air in their house, especially because of COVID.”
Hancock agrees. Although he believes the houseplant obsession would have resurfaced in general, “millennials in particular are really interested in their wellness and that audience has created more momentum,” he says.
Diverse door knockers
While health-supporting plants are top sellers, air purifying plants are not the only greenery customers seek at Sunnyside. According to Schippers, shoppers look for pet-friendly options and succulents too. The nursey and greenhouse also sees a host of customers with preferences for all sizes, colors and textures — anything from 6, 7 feet tall to a little 2-inch pot, Schippers says. Because of this, she orders large amounts of plants weekly to meet the demands of her diverse clientele.
“We get everything,” Schippers says. “We get the middle aged-consumers, the millennials, the youngin’s that are buying their first home and want something big for the entrance, or something little for the tabletop. We get groups of women that are in their 60s and 70s all giddy saying, ‘Look what I found,’ and ‘I’m talking cartloads of plants.’ The millennials come in and shop in groups, and they’re in here every week or every payday. Then we get the young kids that come in with their parents that are around 10, 12 years old. It’s all generations.”
Like Sunnyside, Costa Farms also has multiple consumer groups, but the most engaged consumer, Hancock says, is typically the millennial woman followed by the “core consumer — the person who’s between 45 and 50, and has always had plants.” The latter group, Hancock says, generally has no interest in trendy varieties, but focuses on nurturing their passion for plants.
While Hancock sees a broad assortment of buyers, like Schippers, he has also noticed no favor towards one type or size of plant, but rather a focus on certain sought-after varieties. “I think with the collectors, it’s more about the variety than the size — getting this new plant that they’ve had their eye on for a couple of years but never saw on sale.”
The digital drive
When asked what he thinks has inspired the return of the houseplant craze, Hancock points to changes in generational buying and, of course, social media’s influence. While she believes the houseplant craze would not be “nearly as popular if it weren’t for Instagram,” Schippers says the infatuation has always been there.
“I think [collectors] want to be trendy but it was the same before,” she says. “Back in the 1800s, a houseplant showed that you had wealth, status. So, I think it’s still a little bit of a ‘Look what I could get’ situation.”
Hancock, too, has noticed the same trend, and in his own words, he calls it a “need point” for some consumers.
“With the collectors, a need point is finding new and interesting varieties. Not only to have for their collection, but also to be able to show off on social media,” he says. “I think that’s as much of a driver as it is just having it.”
The digital drive is also accompanied by a new way of shopping, ordering and delivering. Because of this, Costa Farms established an Amazon store to reach more customers. For some, partnering with the massive online shopping platform is out of the question, but Hancock has another perspective.
“It certainly makes plants more accessible, especially for consumers in small towns where they may not have a large store that buys from us,” he says. “And then, I also suspect that it’s really utilized in dense urban areas where they have stores, but it may be a pain to go out and schlep your plant, your pot and your potting soil back to your apartment.”
To trend or not to trend
Although Costa Farms keeps its eye on trends, Hancock says the company is careful about following them all, and tries to establish a leadership position instead. Because of this, they can maintain value in their selections.
“Just because a variety is popular today, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we might try to chase that one,” Hancock says. “But we might look for the criteria that we think will lead to the same level of popularity in other varieties, especially if it’s one consumers aren’t familiar with or if it’s not particularly well-known in the trade.”
Selecting which fads to follow also allows Costa Farms to balance its wide buyer pool. Because there are still a lot of entry-level consumers, the company continues to focus on easy-care plants like Sansevieria, Zamioculcas and Ponytail Palm, for example. Hancock also references cacti and succulents, although he does not think they are necessarily as easy to care for as most consumers assume. As for other plants that are common amongst new consumers, he considers Golden Pothos and ZZ plants the “tried and true, solid sellers.”
With the more engaged consumer, however, Hancock has seen a “heavy swing” toward trendy varieties like Monstera deliciosa, Monstera adansonii and Ficus lyrate, to name a few.
Sunnyside seeks out its own niche by appealing to plant parents who are looking for rare finds. Luckily for Schippers, her natural affinity for “things that are weird, unusual, hard-to-get and colorful,” is a perfect fit for Sunnsyide’s wide array of houseplants, which is reflected in its “Unique & Fun Houseplants” section.
Full of “interesting-looking plants that can be a conversation starter in your home or something that just makes you smile when you see them,” Sunnyside’s website boasts some distinctive plants in that category including Swiss Cheese Philodendron (Monstera adansonii). Another is the Black Goldfish Plant, (Columnea gloriosa), which earned its name from flowers that resemble leaping goldfish. The String of Hearts plant (Ceropegia woodii), is equally stunning with its draping, heart-shaped patterned leaves.
When Schippers runs across hot sellers like these, she buys them up with no hesitation.
“There are so many houseplant forums with people looking for hard-to-come-by plants that come in on a regular basis. So when I find something that’s hard to come by, I don’t even look at the price because I know it will sell,” she says. “People will spend what they want to on the more unusual, hard-to-come-by things.”
The future of indoor foliage
Compared to previous years, Hancock says Costa Farms is planting more of its trending tropical collection — “the newer, more collector-y plants.” He attributes that to the entry consumers’ rise in ranks.
“I think we’re seeing more and more consumers move up that continuum, starting at, ‘I’m an entry-level consumer and I got a couple of plants,’ to ‘I’m having really good success with the plants, let me get a few more.’ And then all of a sudden, ‘Alright, I need this new exclusive one.’ It’s kind of a need for some people,” he says.
But to know if the houseplant trend will continue to grow is “the million-dollar question,” he says.
Hancock also says that because social media is “fickle,” sometimes trends that originate there tend to fizzle out quickly. Back in pre-social media days, the rise and fall of fads were slower. Still, he does not see any sign of the houseplant craze stopping.
And Schippers agrees. “I think, like anything, it might slow down, but I don’t think it will disappear,” Schippers says. “I think it may slow down like it did before, resurge and be popular again. But we’ve got a long wave to ride right now.”
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