Popping up profits

Features - Cover Story

A temporary or traveling plant shop can boost your garden center business in the long run.

January 18, 2022

Photo courtesy of Cityscapes’ transPLANTed Roaming Greenhouse

Temporary plant shops are popping up everywhere — in trucks parked along busy city streets, in vacant buildings awaiting long-term tenants and alongside both urban and rural business partners. Whether they’re parked for a few hours or planted for a couple of months, these pop-up shops help garden centers reach new customers, drive additional revenues and even scout new store locations.

But the logistics involved in running a short-term pop-up can be quite different from everyday operations at your main store. So before embarking on a pop-up venture for your plant business, it’s important to consider the costs and challenges that come along with this model. Garden Center spoke with several successful plant-based pop-ups to collect their best advice for operating profitably.

1. Find the right location.

Whether you’re launching a mobile plant truck or temporarily occupying a stationary location, the first step is finding the best spot to host your pop-up.

Rob Moffitt had the vision of opening a plant store a few years ago while working full-time as a nurse in Los Angeles. “I started looking at retail spaces and seeing how expensive everything was, and realized I couldn’t afford it,” he says. So when retail stores began shutting down during the pandemic, he rethought his plan altogether. Inspired by other plant trucks he saw online, like Cityscapes’ TransPLANTed Roaming Greenhouse in Boston, he decided, “If people can’t come to a store, maybe I can come to them.”

Photos courtesy of
The Haus Plant Truck
Rob Moffitt, founder, The Haus Plant Truck

When Moffitt launched The Haus Plant Truck in May 2021, he spent his weekends driving all over Los Angeles peddling plants. Over time, he zeroed in on locations with high foot traffic in bustling shopping districts such as Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice and Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.

“One of the big advantages [is] being able to be on some of the nicest streets in the nicest areas of Los Angeles,” Moffitt says. “The rents [for Abbot Kinney storefronts are] about $40,000 a month, so no plant shop can really afford that. But here I am, right next to these places that are paying those kinds of rents.”

Of course, pop-up locations come with their own costs — although these are typically more affordable than renting a traditional storefront. For example, Moffitt has to buy a city sidewalk vendor permit every year, which costs about $600, and certain jurisdictions require additional fees and paperwork.

The biggest key, he says, is coordinating with the surrounding retail stores to ensure a warm welcome. “Make sure that the shop you’re parked in front of is happy with you being there. There’ve been times where the shop owner wasn’t thrilled about me parking in front of her store, so I [tried to] send my customers into her shop, and at the end of the day, she was like, ‘You can park here anytime you want.’ Having those relationships with the shop owners that you’re parking next to is important.”

Jan Goodman, founder, Cityscapes’ TransPLANTed Roaming Greenhouse

2. Partner with local businesses

Working together with nearby businesses to arrange pre-planned pop-ups can alleviate the stress of finding the right location, while potentially doubling your buzz through collaborative joint marketing.

Jan Goodman launched a mobile pop-up, TransPLANTed Roaming Greenhouse, in May 2019 as a way to connect with clients of her interior/exterior plantscaping business, Cityscapes, by supporting their favorite local charities.

“I didn’t want to do a plant truck just to sell plants,” says Goodman, who founded Cityscapes in 1992. “Our [plantscaping] business is very successful, so we didn’t need another revenue stream. We wanted to give back to the community that has given us such success.”

Photo courtesy of TransPLANTed Roaming Greenhouse
The TransPLANTed Roaming Greenhouse operates as a profitable offshoot for Cityscapes, and all proceeds are donated to local charities as a way to give back to the community.

To that end, TransPLANTed operates as a charitable offshoot of Cityscapes. Clients and other companies can book the truck, named Sprout, for pop-up events — the profits of which are donated to a charity of their choosing. By partnering with her clients including corporate facility managers, hotels, condos and hospitals around Boston, Goodman taps into captive audiences without scouting for locations or dealing with the hassle of short-term vendor licenses.

Still, she says it’s important to do your homework on each location to properly plan your pop-up partnership. “You’ve got to ask a lot of questions. ‘How many people are in your building? How many people typically go to [these types of events]?’” she says. “Make sure you know your clientele.”

Similarly, Stephen Petrilyak saw an opportunity for Garden Supply Company to partner with local farms to host mutually beneficial plant pop-ups near Cary, North Carolina. The idea started in the fall of 2020 as a way to supplement a neighboring farm’s fall festival with mums and other cool-season annuals from Garden Supply, where Petrilyak serves as nursery manager. In 2021, he approached another nearby farm, resulting in two spring pop-up locations within a 15-mile radius of the garden center.

“A big bonus to doing [pop-ups] at these types of locations is you don’t have to jump through any hoops when it comes to town ordinances,” Petrilyak says. “Farmers are extremely happy just to see people coming to their farms, whether it’s to see them or just to stop in and pick up two plants.”

Plus, he says these partnerships provide opportunities for joint marketing, allowing him to split the cost of advertising with his pop-up hosts. For example, Garden Supply teamed up to send direct mail postcards containing 25% off coupons for each pop-up location and the main store.

Photo courtesy of
Garden Supply Company

3. Generate a buzz

Embedding yourself in the surrounding community is key — especially if you’re using pop-ups to scout for potentially permanent locations, as LaManda Joy has done to expand City Grange in Chicago.

“We have done [pop-ups] as market tests for … new locations,” she says. “We open our stores for spring, so doing a pop-up during the holidays is a good time to feel out the market. Of course, we’ve done our demographic research, but you want to start getting people … excited and engaged in the brand — following us on social, signing up for the newsletter, etc., and pop-ups have been a great way to do that.”

After launching its first location in Lincoln Square in 2019, City Grange held a pop-up in the Beverly neighborhood that Christmas in preparation for opening a store there in spring 2020. The education-focused garden center just did a second holiday pop-up in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood in the building where Joy plans to put down permanent roots next spring.

“We’ve been marketing it as a pop-up, saying that if the neighborhood responds, then we’ll come back and do the store,” Joy says. In the meantime, she’s building a buzz through a variety of advertising avenues including radio spots, press releases and social media pushes. Before opening the pop-up in November, she papered the building’s windows with City Grange’s social media handles and QR codes that directed people to the website. “Our Instagram [followers] went up almost 1,000 in less than a month,” she says.

Even in rural areas, strategic signage can help direct shoppers toward your pop-up — potentially catching the attention of consumers who may not otherwise walk by your brick-and-mortar store. Petrilyak’s main goal was to pursue pop-ups for Garden Supply and reach new customers. Partnering with local farms to promote his pop-ups, and including roadside signage bearing the logos of both businesses, helped draw new crowds to Garden Supply’s products.

“If our social media and existing marketing isn’t getting to them, it was right there in their face with a big sign out by the road,” Petrilyak says. “More often than not, [these pop-ups attracted new] customers that did not know who we were or where our main location was. So we really hit the nail on the head in terms of reaching new customers.” In the future, he says, he’ll focus on tracking the traffic that comes back to the main store after visiting a pop-up.

Photo courtesy of Garden Supply Company
In 2021, Garden Supply Company teamed up with The Family Farm on Avent Ferry, a partnership that provided joint marketing opportunities for both businesses while fostering a community connection.

4. Stock your pop-up appropriately.

If you already run a garden center, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to stock your pop-up. “Just use what you’ve got,” Joy recommends. “Don’t go out of your way [trying to sell] a bunch of weird stuff.”

She stocks City Grange’s pop-ups with the same merchandise she purchases for her other stores, including grab-and-go planted containers, pottery and décor, with an extra emphasis on houseplants to suit the urban setting.

Obviously, size constraints may play a factor. That’s why Petrilyak didn’t try to replicate Garden Supply’s entire inventory — skipping over large shrubs, trees, bagged soil and hard goods to focus solely on plants like colorful annuals, blooming perennials and tropicals. The key, he says, “is making sure that those [items] are completely separate from your store’s receivables, so you don’t start skewing numbers.” That sales data will help you accurately manage the inventory for future pop-ups.

An entire aisle in Cityscapes’ plant warehouse is dedicated to TransPLANTed inventory, so Goodman can record its cost of goods separately to track profits and calculate donations accurately. Still, she says, there’s potential for inventory cross-over. For example, Cityscapes rotates some healthy plants out of its “living art” interior installations every month or so, and if “they still look phenomenal, we repot them again and we sell them on the truck,” Goodman says. “We already got the revenue from them, so [the profits can go straight] to charity.”

TransPLANTed’s best sellers are easy-care houseplants. Since many customers are novice plant owners, beginner-friendly varieties like snake plants, ZZs and pothos are safe bets. To satisfy more experienced plant shoppers, Sprout also carries more “challenging” varieties like monstera, alocasia, string of pearls and string of dolphins. Early on, the truck stocked (and sold) lots of little succulents, but Goodman’s stance on plant size has shifted. Now, she opts for larger, 10-inch houseplants like dracaenas and aglaonemas at higher price points.

“The bigger houseplants are a bigger bang for the buck, and we make more profit as opposed to a $5 plant,” she says. “That’s where you’re going to get the most money, when you’re talking about $50, $30 plants. … That’s where thousands of dollars in revenue come from, not $5 plants.”

Photo courtesy of Garden Supply Company

5. Staff smart

The biggest challenge of running a pop-up is staffing it, especially during a pandemic that has tightened the labor market.

Moffitt has struggled to find help, which has constricted the Haus Plant Truck’s growth to his available hours. Since he still works full-time as a nurse, he can only take the truck out on weekends until he grows the team.

“I’ve been trying to hire somebody for a while now and it’s been really tough to find somebody who’s a plant person, [can] drive the truck, and [is] looking for these part-time hours,” Moffitt says. “If I found the right help, I would probably have a second truck.”

To staff Garden Supply’s spring pop-ups, Petrilyak relied on part-time help from high school and college students. Although he gave them a quick run-down on basic customer service and explained the difference between annuals and perennials, they weren’t equipped to answer all questions from customers about plant care or in-store availability.

Garden Supply Company also partnered with Phillips Farm, another local establishment near the IGC.

“There were a lot of phone calls about plant knowledge, so that’s my big goal for this spring is to find somebody that’s got a little bit more basic knowledge,” he says.

In some cases, Petrilyak leveraged the part-time workers who were already employed by the farm that hosted his pop-up. “We were able to just split their pay between us,” he says. “There was a lot of win-win for both businesses.”

Of course, if you have enough labor at your main store to staff your pop-up without additional hiring, then shifting some employees to the new location might be easier. It could even be an opportunity to develop potential managers by delegating new responsibilities.

“Instead of dictating everything, I let my team figure it out; I let it be their store,” Joy says. “They’ve worked in the other locations and they know our customers, so they know how it works. They have ownership of it and they’re making decisions, so it’s been great management training.”

Photos courtesy of TransPLANTED

6. Consider the costs

Whether you go mobile or open up shop in a vacant building or partnering business, the costs of operating your pop-up can make or break your return on investment.

For example, sharing space can help control the overhead costs. Garden Supply’s start-up costs totaled about $5,000 for both pop-ups — including carts, iPads and Squares for processing transactions, and tables constructed of lattice atop cinder blocks. Petrilyak also paid a $1,200 monthly lease — about four times less than he would have paid to rent a commercial space.

Photo courtesy of TransPLANTed
Cityscapes has picked up new clients who saw Sprout, TransPLANTed’s customized truck, parked by the company’s competitors.

Still, he says, the cost of partnering with other farms paled in comparison to the overhead of running a brick-and-mortar store. In the span of less than a month between May and June, “Each pop-up generated about $55,000 in sales,” Petrilyak says. “[That’s with] a college kid or two at each place selling all of that, [compared to] 30 employees running around the garden center.”

Operating a mobile shop, on the other hand, comes with added costs. Moffitt searched for months to find a used truck but increasing resale costs and excessive mileage pushed him toward a new vehicle instead. He finally found a step van for about $70,000 that he financed, and paid another $70,000 to have it customized with a greenhouse roof. Meanwhile, he hired a graphic designer to create branding and marketing materials, which cost about another $7,000.

“I definitely spent about three times more than I originally planned,” Moffitt says. His monthly costs include a $1,000 parking space to store the truck when it’s not in use, a $1,200 truck payment and about $800 in business licenses and insurance.

Photo courtesy of the Haus Plant Truck
Moffitt’s biggest growth hurdle is finding the right employees to staff his team.

Typically, Moffitt says, his sales average $1,200 per day, up to $2,000 on a good day. “Not being able to afford a brick-and-mortar space is a blessing in disguise, because the truck has been getting a really great reception and people seem to be really excited about it,” says Moffitt, who has accumulated over 16,000 followers on Instagram in just seven months. “I think I’m getting more engagement and excitement from people than if I was just another plant shop somewhere.”

To launch TransPLANTed in 2019, Goodman purchased Sprout, a new, customized truck for $85,000. Since then, she’s invested another $15,000 in shelving, customized stairs and shading for the greenhouse roof, along with several iPads and Shopify store accessories for processing payments. She also bought a separate transit van for about $28,000 that hauls bigger plants and extra shelving to stage around the truck, as well as a large carport for $5,600 to protect Sprout from the sun and snow when it’s not in use.

Labor is Goodman’s largest operating expense for TransPLANTed, which employs a director and a part-time worker to set up the truck before each event, scan everything into Shopify and then carefully pack up the plants and pots for transit before reassembling the display on-site. While Goodman is evaluating new shelving to reduce her setup time, she dedicates at least eight hours of prep time the day before events. In total, she estimates about 40 hours of labor per pop-up, with two to six employees working at the event, depending on the expected crowd size. At an average pay rate of $25 per hour, this labor adds at least $1,000 of operating costs to each event.

Photo courtesy of the Haus Plant Truck
Due to Moffitt’s social media savvy, The Haus Plant Truck currently has 17,000 followers on Instagram and engagement continues to grow thanks to the truck’s unique visibility.

After accounting for expenses, TransPLANTed donates the profits from each pop-up. “It ends up being 10 to 20%of sales,” says Goodman, who requires a $2,000 minimum spend — so if that sales quota isn’t met, the company that booked the pop-up pays the rest — ensuring a donation to the charity. In 2021, TransPLANTed collected approximately $80,000 in net sales and donated about $15,000 to charities.

Although Goodman launched TransPLANTed to support other organizations, the pop-up has grown her company along the way. Cityscapes has picked up new clients who called because they saw Sprout parked by their competitors. Now, Goodman is considering opening a brick-and-mortar plant store because Sprout’s fans won’t stop asking for it.

“It does bring exposure. I don’t do it for that, but it does put our company out there. It’s a great marketing machine,” she says. “If you want to get your brand out there, this is the best way to do it.”

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Garden Center magazine.