The next big thing

Features - State of the Industry: Houseplants

Many houseplant buyers are Gen Z and millennial customers — here’s what they’re buying next.

November 10, 2022

Photo © fortyforks | Adobe Stock

Interest in houseplants has steadily climbed throughout the last decade, and due to the pandemic, purchases skyrocketed. As most garden centers know, the typical houseplant shopper is much younger than the baby boomers who most frequent the garden center. However, millennials and Gen Z shoppers have entered the fold, and businesses are figuring out what they want next. So now that you have these two demographics on the hook, how do you make them stay? Garden Center spoke to three businesses that shared what keeps these younger customers returning and how houseplants are an entry point into other departments of the garden center.

Bloomington Valley Nursery

Bloomington, Indiana

Jessie Kennedy, outgoing manager at Bloomington Valley Nursery, says the pandemic kickstarted the surge for houseplants and fruit and vegetable gardening. However, she thinks houseplants are here to stay, and in the past year, staff has implemented new initiatives due to the craze.

“We’ve upped our stock of houseplants this last year as well as different fertilizers and little pots. We've also been planning on putting in a potting soil bar that we've about got ready,” Kennedy says.

Megan McKim, incoming manager, adds that they’ve added much more stock than they used to carry. This year, more hoyas, pothos, philodendrons, calatheas, prayer plants and houseplant rarities have joined the inventory lineup.

Kennedy pays close attention to what’s happening in the market and points out that many houseplant customers are apartment and condo dwellers. Because they have less space and less light than their predecessors, Kennedy believes container gardening will take off, mainly because the IGC is in a college town.

Additionally, Kennedy has noticed that Gen Z and millennial houseplant customers ask for organic fertilizers, soils and plant care products for indoor use.

“If they’re container gardening fruit or vegetables on their deck, they're leaning more toward natural and organic products. And then a lot more people are obviously looking for lower light things and pet-friendly things,” Kennedy says. “I have a lot of people saying they have dogs or cats that they got during the pandemic, and they want to make sure that any new plants are safe for their pets.”

COVID allowed Bloomington Valley to cast a wider marketing net beyond its target consumers. At the time, McKim says they thought their customer base was homeowners ages 30 to 50, primarily interested in buying trees and shrubs.

“The pandemic hit and everyone was at home enjoying their indoor spaces and they wanted to brighten them up with houseplants. And we realized there was a whole other group of students and younger people who do not have houses that wanted to add some green to their spaces,” McKim says.

As for the future, Kennedy believes houseplant interest will remain steady but predicts that edible containers will move inside. And to accompany these indoor edibles, she thinks indoor lighting to grow them will become popular.

“We're going to keep seeing smaller houses, apartments, condos — people that can't afford a house. I think houseplants might just shift a little bit, but I think it's going to stay barely steady,” Kennedy says.

Another shift the IGC has paid attention to is houseplant prices. In several Facebook groups specializing in rare houseplants, McKim noticed a price explosion in the middle of the pandemic but has recently seen prices drop.

Photo © AnnaStills | Adobe Stock

“Things got very, very, very expensive. Prices have definitely started to go down, but I don't think it's because the of lack of interest; I think it’s just that more people were getting into them and propagating them and making them more available,” McKim says. “But we haven't seen a drop in houseplant business at all. It's actually been pretty steady.”

Lindley’s Garden Center

New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Regarding houseplants, Jennifer and Debbie Pell, co-owners of Lindley’s Garden Center, say they don’t follow trends but instead allow their customers to dictate what they sell. “We do a lot of customer requests, especially special requests,” Jennifer says. “It allows us to drive the business for what the customers want instead of what we think they need.”

While it’s impossible to predict the trends, Jennifer believes houseplants have more staying power than they used to have.

“Plants are used so much in interior design that I don’t think houseplants are going to go away any time soon. Of course, everything has a trend line, but I think interior designers are going to help keep it going. People are going to see it in IKEA catalogs and things like that, and that helps keep it in that national spotlight,” she says.

Debbie says the pandemic hit right as the houseplant craze took off. She recalls that they had people that came into the IGC who didn’t even know about houseplants. Yet, nearly three years later, the interest is still there.

“When the houseplant craze started, people came in saying, ‘I want something to help clean my air.’ They were relating it more to health. And they wanted easy plants — things like pothos and philodendrons, things that aren’t going to die.”

But then they started succeeding with the plants, Jennifer says, which opened the door for repeat purchases. “They would say, ‘Wow, now I can get this other cool plant.’ Then they started feeling comfortable to branch out into some different stuff,” Jennifer says.

Debbie says that specialty retailer sites like Etsy and eBay have become houseplant competitors, particularly with new varieties and coveted rarities. However, because they know many of their customers frequent these sites, they’ll use it to their advantage to price match their stock, bump up the plant’s perceived value and then drop the price just a little.

When it comes to gauging the trends, Jennifer and Debbie see what’s available from growers and ask the best source around: employees.

“A lot of times I’ll ask employees in their 20s and 30s about their opinions on certain plants. I’ll ask, ‘Is this plant going to be cool? What are you hearing about this plant? What do you guys think?’ I try to utilize them because they're plant nerds and they're always out there looking at the latest and newest finds,” Debbie says.

She also points out that people want houseplants that offer health benefits, like air plants or edibles. The trend line began with succulents and then the houseplants, which got their toes in the door. Next, she thinks these customers will try out their hand with veggies. “Life is trending toward a healthier lifestyle, and plants are a big part of that,” Debbie says.

Another trend Debbie points out is that young families are spurning ornamentals in the landscape in favor of edibles. Jennifer attributes this to a Gen Z mindset: “If they’re not going to feed themselves, then they want to feed the animals or birds, right? And so that's where I think, beyond vegetables, it's also native plants. I think the native plants are really starting to catch on more and more.”

Many Gen Z-ers and millennials come in and specifically ask for native plants. In addition, older crowds of customers are reverting to “more natural” organic and native gardening ways asv well, Debbie says.

Jackson’s Greenhouse & Garden Center

Topeka, Kansas

Like Lindley’s, Dave Jackson, who co-owns Jackson’s Greenhouse & Garden Center with his wife, Annette, says he’s lucky that his staff members are “really, really, really into houseplants,” which helps them keep a pulse on the trends.

“We have an employee who monitors 15 different Facebook plant groups all throughout Northeast Kansas, and then she takes special orders and tries to get stuff in based on whatever the local groups are looking for,” he says.

They primarily receive plant shipments, but they try to propagate what they can, especially plants like string of pearls and tropicals. Silver inch plant is quite popular with customers due to its variations of colored leaves and sizes, as well as hen and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum).

“COVID brought two generations to the plant party, and I don’t see that slacking off much. It’s been rewarding. But a secondary thing, of course, is that ceramic decorated pottery goes out with the plants. We’ve at least quadrupled our inventory of pots since 2020,” he says.

Jackson has been in the business for 54 years and says when the houseplant boom fizzled out in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was hard to get customers back in to buy them.

“There is always a fear that this is just another wave and it'll go away. And I've seen it happen once or twice. At one point we brought in our own semi load of houseplants just to our greenhouse. We'd set up two remote locations and when bedding plant season was over, we kept them open for houseplants. But that all went away,” he says.

For 40 years, plant varieties remained unchanged — it’s only been within the past 10 or 15 years that new varieties and branding changed the game, he says.

“Plant breeders have really figured out that this is a gold mine for patenting their plants and collecting royalties. So that's what's generated it, I guess, is basically the profit motive that's finally gotten back to the plant breeders,” he says.

As for the trend fizzling out, Jackson doesn’t foresee that happening any time soon because the industry has something that wasn’t available in the ‘70s and ‘80s: social media. The IGC is utilizing Facebook groups and email marketing more than ever. In tandem, many Gen Z and millennials heavily pursue social media plant content, where houseplants are always there to greet them.