Garden centers prepare for coronavirus impact
Kate Spirgen

Garden centers prepare for coronavirus impact

IGCs in North America are remaining open but financially cautious.

March 20, 2020

Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., sales were going “through the roof” for SummerWinds Nursery’s locations in Arizona and California. In fact, they were 20-30% higher than last year. “Now, Arizona has slowed down but we’ve seen weather in California and Arizona — rain like we did last year around this time,” said Frank Benzing, president and CEO, adding that Arizona is “holding its own for the most part.”

In California, though, he said, “The world is stopped almost." Sales this week are down 75% vs. the same week a year ago.

Earlier this week, the company’s management team discussed whether or not to shut their doors, weighing what was best for the public and their employees. Ultimately on Tuesday, they decided to stay open.

“We think we’re a good food supply source for planning your own, especially in warmer temperatures, not to mention we’re a nice respite for people to go walk. It’s like walking in a park,” Benzing said. “And you can still do that in California; you just have to keep social distance.”

In Dallas, the weather has been rainy, so business would have been slow anyway, says Mark Ruibal, owner of Ruibal’s Plants of Texas. But landscapers are still coming in to pick up their plants and heading out to jobs. “And since we’re doing all of our own growing and we’ve got a big supply of plants and we’re going to plug along as much as we can,” he said.

The plan going forward is to promote that Ruibal’s is still open for business. Since there’s plenty of space in the nursery, people can keep their distance while they browse.

“We’re going to kind of push the fact that also that you need to have something to do at your house anyway. You might as well go out and plant a garden or plant your flowers and be as normal as possible,” Ruibal said.

Liz Lark-Riley, managing director of Rockledge Gardens in Florida, said the IGC has not yet seen a major drop in sales and they’re continuing to hit their sales goals. The company is up 6.3% year to date but down 8.14% month to date and 22.5% week to date.

“Our goal right now is to put out as much positivity and beauty as possible, even if people can't come in," she said. “All of our social media has been focused on beauty and kindness and just giving people a sense of hope and normalcy and beauty right now."

Financial planning.

Cash supplies at Ruibal’s Plants of Texas are OK for now, but the top-level managers are cutting down on the money they take home to make sure their people will be taken care of, according to Ruibal.

“If it comes down to the point where it would be three, four, five weeks off where nobody’s got anything coming in, we’ll try to supplement everybody as much as we can,” he said. “Of course, we’ll cut back on our hours a little bit from what they would normally be in the spring just to kind of give ourselves a little bit more of a cushion to make it through. So we’ll be there for our people as much as we possibly can for as long as we can.”

SummerWinds has stopped all of their orders and today, they only have replenishments coming in for their vegetable and herb plants. For now, garden centers report that the supply chain is running just fine.

Lark-Riley said that Rockledge Gardens started paying down their credit line after last summer and in January in effort to zero out debt. “We’re actually continuing to do so with the understanding that if we do need to, we can pull from it at a later time,” she said. The company recently decided to make a big payment toward their credit line to further that effort.

“We’re just feeling very, very fortunate to be where we are. And obviously things are changing rapidly and we're paying attention to it, she said.”

See how garden centers are finding new ways to do delivery, curbside pickup and online classes here.