Container craze

Features - 2021 CONTAINER REPORT

Coming off a record year of container sales, here's how IGCs are adapting to renewed demands of 2021.


From the East Coast to the West Coast, increased interest in gardening spurred a boom of demand for containers for 2020, with steady sales streaming into 2021. IGCs across North America experienced record demands since the pandemic began and are well on their way for another successful year in container sales. Here’s how the latest trends and consumer lifestyles are affecting the market, according to two garden retail experts.

Shifting spaces

Cathy Hough, general manager and buyer at Marina del Rey Garden Center in California, says that living trends have influenced some of the latest shifts in container preferences.

“I don’t think I have a pot that’s not selling,” Hough says. The IGC has been serving Los Angeles and its surrounding areas since 1977 and has one of the largest container inventories in the area, according to Hough.

“Every container itself depends on the needs of the customer. We used to have a lot of inventory in heavy concrete pots, and that has really shifted to lighter weight material,” she says.

In West Los Angeles, many new townhomes and condominiums have weight restrictions for their balconies. As such, clay fiber pots have been one of the IGC’s most popular offerings for several years since they look like concrete but offer a sleek, modern look at a fraction of the weight.

Small seems to be the growing trend, as the IGC sells everything from 36-inch pots to 2-inch pots at a variety of price points. However, Hough says she’s noticed an uptick in demand for the smaller pot sizes over the last couple of years, particularly 4-inch, 6-inch and 8-inch.

“We’re seeing more and more demand for smaller pots. I think, especially as people have been housebound for the past year, people are paying attention to everything in their house and everything in their apartment. And if they only have a little shelf space above their kitchen sink that holds a 4-inch pot, that’s what they’re going to do,” Hough says.

At Marina del Rey Garden Center, shoppers are interested in glazed ceramic pottery in shades of ocean blue and ocean green, along with lightweight clay fiber containers that mimic the look of classic concrete styles at a fraction of the weight.

The IGC also sells a variety of ceramic glazed pots, which tend to be quite popular with the local customer base. The ceramic glazed pots primarily come from China and Vietnam, and there are a variety of bright colors like lime greens and oranges. Ocean green and ocean blue also sell spectacularly well, along with classic neutral staples.

Black and white containers are popular with decorators and designers, while homeowners are drawn more to bright colors, Hough says.

“Back in the day, people used to go with baskets back in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Baskets were kind of an interior go-to for indoor plants and now it’s all over the map. Now, people will do everything from the clay fiber to Italian clay to glazed ceramic,” Hough says.

The bright colors of the ceramics are an unintentional siren call to curious customers, as the different containers are visible from across the street — something that helps, Hough notes. Additionally, she displays containers within the different plant materials and creates vignettes to spread them around the store so people can see all of the different types they carry.

“In addition to the homes, we have a lot of single-story homes, single-family homes and townhomes. It really is a container-emphasis town. Where we are, there’s a lot of people who live in apartments and a lot of people who live in small spaces who don’t have the ground space, so containers totally suit their lifestyle,” Hough says.

Jessica Beesley, retail store manager at Estabrook’s in Maine, notes a variety of styles rounding out shopping carts this year. The IGC’s flagship store is located in Yarmouth, and has a seasonal location in Kennebunk. When it comes to outdoor containers, customers look for contemporary pieces and shapes, especially cones, cylinders and squares. She notes that these shapes carry over to indoor container popularity as well.

“Terra-cotta has been really big for interior for us, especially in the last two years and it only seems to be growing bigger. The other thing that I’m finding people are picking up, especially for inside, is anything with feet — such as footed containers or containers with pedestals underneath,” Beesley says.

The range of indoor container sizes runs the gamut at Estabrook’s from as small as 2 1/2-inch pots to 10-inch, 12-inch or even 14-inch. The majority of what we sell is probably 4 1/2 to 6-inch pots, somewhere right in that range,” Beesley says.

Price points are across the board, but Estabrook’s has been able to sell more higher-end containers lately. People want their interiors to look nice and they’re willing to pay for it, she says.

To catch the customer’s eye, outdoor containers are stacked in towers on wooden and steel tables. “Inside, it’s pretty much anything goes. We’ll have a specific style amongst some plants, and we have some great wooden hutches that we use as well. Terra-cotta goes on wooden shelves or wooden platforms. We’re kind of squeezing it in here, there and everywhere these days,” Beesley says.

Whenever they get a new piece or an especially striking container, the garden center features it on social media or occasionally in its newsletters.

“Typically, it’s just something that people will pick up when they are here, or they’ll come in looking for a container to re-pot a plant they have,” Beesley says.

According to Hough, neutral shades and white and black tend to be popular with designers and decorators.

Sales spike

Containers are a fairly profitable category for the IGCs that stock them, but once COVID hit in 2020, demand was through the roof. Beesley notes there was a major uptick in container sales last year and doesn’t see the trend winding down any time soon.

Hough says COVID affected every facet of inventory in the business. No category or product was spared from the shock to the supply chain system.

“I’ve been doing this for probably 40 years, and it was my most challenging year. All of a sudden our vegetable areas and the shelves were empty. My pallets of soil were gone,” Hough says. “I mean, it seemed to happen so fast. We were unprepared, the growers were unprepared, we were all just unprepared. We began running out of product by April,” Hough says.

She credits the strong relationships between the IGC and its vendors who kept them as well supplied as they could, as well as ordering brands she had never carried before.

As for the future, Hough says it’s impossible to predict what will happen, but she has a good feeling, considering the IGC’s market share increased nearly 30%.

“The question is, is that new market share — those people who’ve never gardened — are they going to come back this year? Do we grow more? Do we manufacture more? What do we do?

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but last year was a record year. I would only go so far as to say that this will be our second-best year,” Hough says.