As the country gradually comes to terms with living with the coronavirus, life pressed on in the form of celebration on Mother’s Day. As of publication date, many states have started to slowly reopen, and IGCs wasted no time in gearing up for the biggest sales day of the year. IGCs across North America reported an increase of profit during Mother’s Day weekend, and business owners are welcoming the next few months with renewed optimism.
Kyle Wells, owner of Exquisite Environments in Stamford, Connecticut, says that Mother’s Day sales were above last year’s. Hanging baskets, flowering plants, hydrangeas and dahlias were some of the popular options for 2020.
Like most businesses, Wells says he has taken all the necessary precautions to operate, which includes phone orders, curbside pickup, following social distance protocols and increasing sanitation efforts. However, preparation for the holiday took a lot more time this year, and Wells says the cold weather made prep all the more challenging.
“It's a lot more behind the scenes work at the house, and just a lot of guesswork too, because we've never really experienced anything to this magnitude. So, it's been a huge, huge learning curve as well as preparation coming up to the holiday weekend,” he says.
Managing inventory has been a balancing act, as plants need to be protected in greenhouses from unpredictable temperature drops. At the same time, Wells says he’s careful not to overload on inventory due to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
“For example, by 12:30, our cut flowers were completely sold out and we had to shut our cooler off because we didn't have any more product available,” he says. “But a lot of our wholesalers have been closed, and we just didn't want to over-order and not have the traffic that we were hoping for and didn't know if we would get.”
Another trend Wells noticed was a surge in vegetable gardening items. After the pandemic struck, more and more people became inspired to plant their own victory gardens, and IGCs are reaping the benefits of the trend.
“I feel very confident that people are going to be in that spending mode and looking to improve and upgrade and do a lot more plantings. One of the other big things that people have been purchasing, and thinking of purchasing, are building and constructing our vegetable gardens and any edible plants. Huge, huge interest in that. So, it seems that they're really trying to grow their own crops in their backyards and on their patios,” Wells says.
Steve Flynn, Sr., co-owner of Nunan Florist & Greenhouses in Georgetown, Massachusetts, said sales were “ridiculously good” compared to last year. In fact, sales were up 35% in the first 10 days of May, compared to just 5% last year.
“I think the issue is, is everybody wanted to keep their mothers safe, so they did not visit. They sent either flowers or they came in and bought something to bring to their mother, so sales were up quite a bit,” Flynn says.
Nunan’s has an open retail area, so patrons can easily practice social distancing. Orange floor markers are placed six feet apart, and all the employees and customers are asked to wear masks. Additionally, Nunan’s provides curbside pickups, and there are outdoor registers for those who prefer to cash out outside.
Flynn says preparation was hectic because staff is currently shorthanded. Some employees have parents who are immunocompromised and therefore unable to work. He notes that while Nunan’s is making 35% extra in sales, it’s also down 20% in labor, and the staff is exhausted.
Typical Mother’s Day items like hanging baskets and other bloomables did well, but Flynn attributes the success to customers’ growing need to get outside.
“I think the other thing why sales are so good is because everybody's stuck at home. They're tired of sitting in front of the television or the computer. They want to get out and get their hands dirty and get going in the yard making it look good. Mulch sales are huge. People that never mulched before are mulching,” he says.
Matt Zerby, owner of Wasco Nursery and Garden Center in St. Charles, Illinois, said his IGC saw a bump in sales, too.
“Well, for the weekend, Friday and Saturday were fantastic. But Sunday was cold, rainy, and it actually even started to snow just a little bit. So, Sunday sales, Mother's Day sales, weren't very good, but Friday and Saturday were quite good,” he says.
Hydrangeas, roses and blooming plants were popular choices among customers. Patio planters, mixed containers and hanging baskets also sold well. In regard to the coronavirus, Zerby says they’re figuring things out.
“I mean, it's certainly a different way of doing business, but trying to keep track of or limit the number of people in our greenhouses at any one time and maintaining the social distance inside is a little more difficult,” he says. “But our garden center is quite large. It's about an eight-acre garden center, so it's pretty easy to social distance and keep things moving along outdoors.”
Nicole Bent, co-owner of Shelmerdine garden center in Manitoba, Canada, says Mother’s Day sales were “record-breaking.” Shelmerdine has a significant in-store fashion department and Bent says this time of year is the biggest selling season for the department — which is currently closed due to COVID-19. However, even without the fashion category, sales were up nearly 15% the Saturday before Mother’s Day.
As the trend goes, hanging baskets were a popular choice among consumers, and Bent estimates Shelmerdine sold about 500. Garden décor items, like gazing balls, also sold well. Vegetable gardening items — such as tomato, and four-inch veggies and herbs — were also popular, a trend Bent says that will most likely be here to stay.
“I think more people are getting into producing their own food now that we were made aware of our dependence on the food supply chain,” she says. “I think people are planning to spend more time at home, so they're going to enhance their home, their garden.”
Like Flynn, Bent said it was difficult to prepare for Mother’s Day this year, given the circumstances. When it came to set up the greenhouse, Shelmerdine prepared for the worst-case scenario, but ended up backtracking, which was a challenge.
“So, thinking that we would have a very restricted number of people allowed in the building, and that we'd have to have single-direction shopping, we did our whole table setup for that. And then the government said, ‘No, garden centers in our area are deemed essential. Go on ahead and open, just follow the social distancing guidelines.’ So now we're trying to basically change our whole table layout back to what we'd normally be — with wide aisles so people can wander and go where they want,” she says.
However, Bent says one of the biggest challenges Shelmerdine has had to face is how poorly staff is being treated by customers.
“I think it's just a lot of people that are just angry and tired of being stuck at home. I thought they would come to the garden center and they'd feel so good and be happy that they're here, but because things aren't the way they used to be when they came here — we have reduced services and things are laid out differently, and they have to sanitize their hands before they come in — it seems like that is sort of agitating them,” she says. “And so, it's just been tough customer service-wise to make people as happy as we normally would, when we're working under this pressure.”
Bent predicts that 2020 is going to be one of the strongest years the industry has ever had because the public's interest in gardening is peaking again, as consumers are spending more family time at home and outdoors. Bent also gained some introspection, and says the pandemic taught her that IGCs may have over-complicated a few things over time.
“When we needed to become an online store, you realize how many SKUs you have. And so, for example, seeds. I mean, I think I had probably 48 varieties of broccoli. Why do I need 48 varieties of broccoli? The customer doesn't need 48 varieties. So, I think we're all going to figure out how to be more profitable and to simplify gardening for the customer,” she says.
Overall, she thinks the direction the industry is headed is a good one, and Shelmerdine is ready to serve its eager gardeners.
“If I had a crystal ball, I think this is going to be one of the best things ever for our industry, because if parents take the time to teach their kids how to vegetable garden now, that's going to trickle down through their lives. I think people will start gardening now and then continue for years to come. I think this is going to play into our hand, long term,” Bent says.