At Cultivate’20 Virtual, many presenters focused on the future spending power of this relatively mysterious generation. Here’s what we know about Generation Z so far, and why your business should start thinking about appealing to this demographic sooner rather than later. Here are the latest findings from the Pew Research Center:
COVID-19 has challenged each of us as individuals and business owners. Adapting to a new lifestyle, protecting workers and loved ones, providing essential resources to customers, acclimating to a whole new business structure and balancing work ethic with safety. Thankfully, garden centers are well equipped to adapt to changing environments and have thrived amidst a pandemic during their busiest season. Garden centers have been challenged in new ways to leverage technology to manage the sales flow during spring and this will continue to evolve over the coming months. There are simple strategies to leverage technology to increase sales, provide educational value and expand brand presence.
Maintaining a strong social media presence is important for customers to find and connect with your business online. During the coronavirus pandemic, social media use has increased by more than 50% of U.S. adults. Consistently posting on Facebook and Instagram are easy ways to build a following and cultivate a community. Simple updates on new plants or products, plant care tips, or promotions are some strategies to keep your customers engaged. It is important to stay empathetic and vulnerable in your communication and ensure messages address sensitivity to the current pandemic. An online presence allows you to connect directly with your customers for feedback and suggestions that can help you expand your business.
Providing an education series builds customer confidence in your business and strengthens your reputation. With all of us being locked indoors, we are looking to be stimulated, taking on new hobbies and tuning in to podcasts and webinars to learn more on various topics. Hosting webinars allow you to directly connect with your existing or potential customers to educate and stimulate interest in horticulture. On average, 69% of attendees on communication webinars convert to new customers. You may select topics targeted to a range of audiences, from basic to experienced growers – the proper way to repot plants, why leaves start browning, how to avoid pests, ways to choose the right soil/fertilizer, and more. Incorporating your own unique production kits and sharing education on how to build them is a unique strategy to expand your brand and cultivate loyal customers.
Leveraging technology to increase sales. E-commerce sales are seeing an 18% growth in 2020, largely driven by initiatives like curbside pickup that have had unforeseen growth due to the pandemic. Many consumers have turned to online shopping for the first time, reflected in the 12% growth for new online shoppers 65 and older. Strengthening your online platform for customers to view plant availability, build a shopping list, and request curbside pick-up or delivery offers your garden center an advantage in the industry. You can utilize a point of sale system for inventory accountability with online orders in conjunction with in-store orders. Many point of sale solutions also offer mobile options for quick and contactless customer checkout.
We do not know when this pandemic will end, but we do know that our definition of ‘normal’ has undergone a transformation. It has urged many of us to seek sustainability, appreciate the beauty of plants and nature, and entice us to learn about the horticultural industry. We must keep moving forward, embrace the positive change that this pandemic has had on our nursery community and stay optimistic for the months to come. Resilience is not new to horticulturists, and we will continue to thrive!
IGCs that faced the challenges of 2020 reported plenty of new customers. The next challenge is figuring out how to keep them.
Like many IGCs, Rosedale Nurseries (No. 69 on Garden Center’s 2019 Top 100 list) noticed an influx of new customers after reopening May 1 after a month of closure. Pat Colwell, co-manager of the New York-based IGC, says many of the new customers were purchasing seeds, herbs and vegetables. “Many of the customers were beginning to plant their first vegetable gardens,” she says.
Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop, a combination IGC and café near St. Louis, Missouri, also noted an increase in customers during the pandemic. Marketing director Laura Caldie says edibles, especially herbs, have been booming.
This presents an opportunity for the enterprising IGC. These gardening newbies are bored quarantiners. What can be done to turn their 2020 foray into the garden into a lifelong hobby?
Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center (No. 51 on our 2019 Top 100 list) is catering to the new Victory Garden crowd by producing more educational videos for its social media channels and newsletters. The aim is to help new gardeners understand what’s happening in their garden. Videos cover topics like how to tell when your potatoes are ready, when to harvest your broccoli and proper timing for fall crops like onions.
Marcy Cronin, marketing director for the Illinois IGC, says Countryside wants to meet these new gardeners where they are.
“If people have a question, we have lots of areas for them to find out the answer,” Cronin says. “Whether they come in the store or look at us online through the website or the social networks or through email, we’re just trying to keep them abreast of what they should be looking for now. Because if you haven’t gardened before, you just don’t know what to do next.”
The Victory Garden phenomenon isn’t news to LaManda Joy. Before becoming president of City Grange, a Chicago-based garden center that was established in 2019, she founded and ran The Peterson Garden Project, a nonprofit that taught people to grow their own food.
Even during a pandemic, the fast-growing IGC more than doubled its customer base. Joy says on a monthly basis, the IGC’s customer mix is approximately 70% new and 30% returning. City Grange opened a second store during the pandemic, complete with a socially-distant ribbon-cutting.
“We know from statements from grateful customers that many were indeed first-time gardeners in addition to first-time customers,” Joy says.
Joy says the City Grange operation, which is designed to be scalable in Chicago and beyond, aims to create a garden center that is experiential, educational and empowering.
“Education is a real pillar of what we do,” she says.
“We believe the world would be a better place with more gardeners in it and the best way to create a lifelong gardener is to help them succeed via education. This has always been our mission, but this year people needed education even more.”
Before COVID-19, City Grange classes were, like many events, designed to get customers into the store. But when the pandemic hit, the IGC converted to online-only and attendance was boosted 60% over 2019’s in-person classes. To meet demand, Joy and her team provided more classes on a broader range of topics. City Grange had 29 classes just between January to August 2020 vs. 32 in the full 12 months of 2019.
Topics range from Gardening 101: Frequently Asked Questions to Garden Cocktails: Garnishes from the Garden, a how-to session on how to mix drinks using ingredients from your own plant selection.
In addition, City Grange offers “Ask the Expert” Garden Consultations with in-house experts on seven different topics.
These half-hour Zoom calls cost $50 and if the customer decides to purchase products, they get a $25 credit to use at City Grange.
Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop is tackling the education and retention challenge a different way. The IGC developed a plant subscription model that targets new gardeners. Subscription deliveries are ubiquitous these days, with everything from food to razors arriving on doorsteps, clad in cardboard. “The Beginner Box” is Maypop’s first planned box, launching in September 2020. Each month’s box will include a specially selected houseplant, care card and plant accessory.
“We thought The Beginner Box would be an awesome way for people that are interested in gardening, to ease into it and get a cute accessory with the plant,” Caldie says. “Then we would pick the easiest house plants and still some fun ones too. We figured if it’s working for all these other industries, why not give it a shot?”
Unlike many subscription models, these boxes are only available for in-store pick up and will not be shipped or delivered. Caldie says subscribers can expect a professionally curated selection of beautiful, easy-care plants.
Subscription payments are automated monthly, and can be cancelled at any time. Caldie says they expect subscribers to come and go, with new customers signing up as others drop off. Subscribers can even ask for special accommodations, such as lower lighting or pet-safe options. Plant selection will never repeat and accessories will typically be pottery, a watering tool, or plant-related decor.
The care cards capitalize on the trust customers have in Maypop’s staff knowledg and are crucial to give new gardeners the confidence to become plant parents.
“It really sets them up for success,” Caldie says.
The subscription box is $27 per month and can be bought for others as a gift, or as a onetime payment in lieu of a subscription. This option works for those trepidatious new gardeners testing the waters before committing to more.
FOLLOWING UPAt Rosedale Nurseries, employees are taught that by concentrating on providing good service along with a great selection of plant material, you create a shopping experience customers will want to repeat.
“We hire employees with more horticultural knowledge than most nurseries, so that we can provide our customers with more information when they interact with our sales staff,” Colwell says.
Rosedale also arms its employees with business cards so that the customers can try to stay in contact with them.At Countryside, cashiers are trained to get the email address of any new customers. Cronin says the customers are more willing to give out that information when there is an e-newsletter printed out right there at the register. During the interaction, the cashiers can refer to its contents like gardening tips, store specials and more.
“And there’s usually some kind of cute story to get them engaged,” Cronin says. “It’s not a hard-sell thing; we don’t bombard you.” The cashiers make sure to say the e-newsletter hits inboxes every other Tuesday because email fatigue is a real problem. The newsletter itself can get wordy, Cronin admits, because she tries to cover something from each section of the garden center’s business — flower shop, nursery, greenhouse, landscape department. If it’s too much to read, gardeners can opt to watch a video instead.
“You’ve got to incorporate everything,” she says. “There’s so many eyeballs out there and you don’t know what they’re looking for.”
City Grange also takes an omni-channel approach to following up with its customers. Different types of customers like to receive information in different ways, Joy says. In addition to social media, which grew phenomenally in 2020 (4,000+ new organic Instagram followers since March), City Grange also uses traditional mailers, radio advertising and promotion via local partners such as Chambers of Commerce, garden clubs and other neighborhood specific groups.
The Chicago IGC uses a full digital ecosystem to follow up with customers, including a CRM, marketing automation and more.
“Experienced gardeners come to our website and find info they need, but new gardeners don’t yet know what they don’t know,” Joy says. “So we send out various notifications about blog posts, classes, etc.”
This has certainly been a year like no other. What started off as another normal spring quickly turned into the strangest season many of us have ever seen. Between increasing sales, social distancing, mask mandates and a whole host of new issues to deal with, the industry is one of few that’s weathering the storm well.
In fact, more than three-quarters of respondents said quarantine measures and the coronavirus had the biggest positive impact on sales this year. Despite the challenges it brought, COVID-19 has definitely been good for business.
Edibles were on the rise as unemployment rose and parents looked for activities to do with their kids. New hobby gardeners entered IGCs for the first time and delivery, online ordering and curbside pickup became the new normal for many.
Read on for more insights into the current state of the industry and the changes that came with this year.—
SALES, PROFITS AND PRICES
IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS
The quarantine era led to a renewed interest in gardening and planting. I hope to keep those new customers involved and interested.
It takes more people to run the store due to the need to disinfect carts, monitor entry to the yard, so labor costs are higher.
For now, business is booming. I fear a shortage of quality plant material and plant material of any size next year.
I think over the next couple of years, people might still be sticking closer to home and therefore still work in their gardens/yards. After that, perhaps IGCs will slow down slightly as people travel more again.
The short-term impact has been positive. However, it will be interesting to see if there is a “bubble” months down the road where things slow. However, most customers interacting with the business means more opportunity to put your business/product on display to a consumer. If they have a positive experience, it can only mean good things for business in the future.
This coronavirus experience taught us the value in having a well-groomed online store. We are happy with our online presence, but need to do better and invest more into it.
We found out we don’t have to be open seven days a week to make profit. We will have to come up with plan in 2021 to solve customer count allowed to shop because of COVID-19 protocols. We have a five-year average of 650-750 per day in May and June but because of size of store area we could only process 350-400 per day.
The lack of digital content freely available is preventing our move to e-commerce and will continue to negatively impact our business until the horticultural supply industry changes their ways and offer a centralized website that all digital content is updated by the suppliers and is available to the IGCs free of digital copyright encumbrances.
Like many others we wanted to start an online store for years but never did it until we had to. We plan on continuing it but need to integrate with our POS inventory.
In February, coronavirus was barely a blip on the radar in North America. By mid-March, many U.S. states issued lockdown orders and closed non-essential businesses to curb the spread of the virus. The public turned to victory gardening and other outdoor activities to reconnect with nature, and many IGCs adapted to serve customers’ needs on a dime. Vegetable seed starter packs and gardening supplies were quickly snatched up by eager patrons, and IGCs saw a boom of profits.
However, IGCs located in Pennsylvania and Michigan had a tougher break than most when the pandemic first started, as their businesses were not initially deemed “essential” by their state governments. Garden Center spoke with three IGCs to learn how their business overcame the initial shutdown slump, and the biggest lessons they’ve learned since it all began.
On March 23, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order that directed ‘non-essential’ businesses to suspend in-person operations and told residents to stay home if at all possible. Under section 8a of the order, all agricultural industry businesses were considered essential and could remain open. However, retail garden centers weren’t specified, and their status was unclear.
The next day, English Gardens (No. 13 on Garden Center’s 2019 Top 100 List) announced via that it had been ordered to close down. John Darin, president, says the impact was immediate. The IGC, which has six locations scattered throughout the metropolitan Detroit area, scurried to preserve its cash flow. Darin says they had to go into “survival mode” and furloughed 225 employees (most of whom have now been rehired), leaving only a skeleton crew to provide curbside service.
“We had to preserve cash flow; we had to hold up shipments and we had to stop our seasonal hiring until we could get back open,” Darin says.
On March 27, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion relief package designed to assist citizens struggling from the COVID-19 economic impact. The CARES Act introduced the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small business owners, allowing them to apply for a loan that provided them with “the resources they need to maintain their payroll, hire back employees who may have been laid off, and cover applicable overhead” according to the U.S. Treasury. In order to survive, English Gardens applied for PPP assistance — a process that went well, Darin says.
“Now one of the things that happened during that time is that, while we were closed, for about two weeks, she left the box stores’ garden centers open. Finally, there was enough pressure put on the governor to shut all the non-essential departments in the box stores,” Darin says. “But in essence, the box stores’ plants were deemed more essential than ours, which was clearly upsetting.”
On April 5, The Herald-Palladium reported that the Benton Township Police ordered Lowe’s to cease sales on non-essential garden center items. Two days later, the Michigan Farm Bureau urged its community members to message Whitmer to clarify the order and deem retail plant sales as essential.
Ray Schwall, general manager of Begick Nursery & Garden Center in Bay City, Michigan, assumed garden centers would be deemed essential. Begick’s didn’t have to close down right away, but the IGC did have to lay off most of its employees. Begick’s (No. 78 on our 2019 Top 100 List) also applied for PPP assistance and started doing curbside pickup.
“You know, the weeks leading up to it, [the staff] kept asking me and I kept on saying, ‘No, no, we’re going to be OK. We’re a garden center. In all the other states, they let garden centers stay open.’ Well, guess what? [Whitman] had a different mindset, and we weren’t OK,” Schwall says.
Begick’s offered a gift card program with a 20% added bonus to bolster the loss of sales, a strategy that worked far better than the company ever hoped. “You would think people would be buying the $25 or $50 gift cards. No, we were selling $3,000 gift cards and stuff like that. That’s how amazing people were,” Schwall says.
Likewise, English Gardens offered $20 gift card incentives for patrons who spent $100, and Darin says customers showed tremendous support.
On April 9, Whitmer issued another executive order extending the initial order and introducing more shutdowns, this time including all IGCs and garden-related sections of big-box stores.
The Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA) filed a federal lawsuit to stop the order on April 17. And on April 24, Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-59, which extended the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order until May 15, but allowed retail garden centers, nurseries and greenhouses to return back to work.
Pennsylvania IGCs also dealt with a similar situation. Shaina Barnum, garden center manager and marketing/events coordinator at Froehlich’s Farm and Garden Center in Furlong, Pennsylvania, calls the experience “unnerving.” In fact, the IGC was only open for one day before it received the order from Gov. Tom Wolf to shut down on March 20.
Froehlich’s applied for “essential status,” which was denied, but it could still sell items via curbside pickup. So the garden center received orders from every available avenue, including phone and email. Barnum notes this was a positive thing, but with limited staff, it was hard to fulfill orders.
“Immediately we figured out a way to reinvent our business model overnight. It was really unclear who was actually essential and who was not. And it kept changing day to day. It felt like every day we were on tippy toes waiting for whatever the new information was,” Barnum says.
Greenhouse, nursery and floriculture production operations, as well as landscape service companies, were deemed essential, according to the Pennsylvania Nursery and Landscape Association (PNLA). Like Michigan, big-box stores were allowed to remain open, but The Sentinel reported these had been ordered to close down on April 7. PNLA submitted an exemption for retail garden centers on April 1, which Wolf denied on April 10.
“We had customers calling us like, ‘Hey, what can we do?’ ‘What can I buy from you right now?’ ‘What can we do for a curbside?’ or, ‘I’ll buy a certificate.’ So, it was really kind of cool to see the community really reaching out to us, and other small businesses, just to really kind of keep everyone with everyone afloat and going,” Barnum says.
Rebuilding & strategizing
On April 25, English Gardens reopened — and received its PPP money on same the day.
“During this time of being closed down and operating with curbside only, more ‘essential business’ details were clarified and it was noted any business with a nursery license was considered essential,” Barnum says. With this new information in hand, Froehlich’s announced on April 26 it would reopen on May 1, the same day Begick’s reopened.
Schwall says the moment the news announced they could reopen, phone lines exploded off the hook, and describes the reopening process as “hectic” because they assumed their reopening date would be May 1.
“At the time, we had received our PPP through the federal government. So we started to bring back a few of the girls and some of the guys, and we were working as the stock was coming in, trying to get the store ready for that May 1 opening,” Schwall says. “Well, our governor threw us a wrench and the week before that she actually came on and said, ‘You guys can open not a week from now, but you can open now.’ Well, that was a little bit more difficult to turn that.”
Once they were open, all three stores also had to adjust to the COVID-19 world. New protocols included heavy sanitation wipe downs, revised store hours, social distancing markers, face mask policies, one-way aisles, sneeze guards and outdoor registers. There was an overwhelming surge of demand, and right off the bat, garden seeds and plant starters sales experienced an upswing.
“We came very close to selling absolutely all the way through our seed inventory, and we’ve never done that,” Schwall says.
Darin says the pandemic taught him to be opened-minded and quick, and he learned some valuable business lessons. “Normally in May in June (and part of April) we’re open 13 hours a day. So, we had a reduction of almost 30% of the store hours. Sales were robust. We saw great sales increases in May, and June and July,” Darin says. “In essence, the lesson we learned is we could do more business in less hours with less inventory and less staff than we ever thought possible.”
He also notes they’ll likely stick with outdoor registers to maintain the flow of customer traffic in store. For both Darin and Barnum, COVID-19 spurned an e-commerce reckoning.
“We were just in the process, in March, of redeveloping our website. And we had the e-commerce portion of it on our radar — we were already doing e-commerce the last few years for Christmas and things like that. We really had to put a lot of investment and horsepower into developing the e-commerce site. So that was probably a good thing,” Darin says.
They’ve rolled it out but haven’t promoted it too much, because changing inventory across the six stores is challenging to keep track of on the e-commerce site, Darin says.
Barnum says that while their site doesn’t have an e-commerce portion, it did force them to create a Shopify account. It’s not currently active and running, but it’s in place as a security measure should they be ordered to shut down again. Orders can be directly placed on Shopify, so a limited staff won’t be inundated with phone or email orders.
In the event of another shutdown, Darin says they took measures to ensure they would be considered essential. They looked to hardware stores for inspiration, as Whitmer had allowed these to remain open. They added a small inventory of pet food, cleaning supplies, automotive supplies and promoted the cannabis growing area.
“So we put in all these essential departments that we’ve got photographs of and everything else, so if we ever get challenged as an essential business again, besides just saying, ‘OK, we sell all these edible products, food products, we’re also selling these items as well,’” Darin says.
Darin, Schwall and Barnum note that they’re currently in the process of planning for next year and are unsure of what the coming seasons will bring.
“We are starting our spring buying for next year, but there’s so many question marks. How can you expect to do the kind of business that we did this year, next year? I don’t know if that’s possible or not. Is the pandemic going to be gone for next year? Are we still going to be limited? My personal feeling is, I think some of this is going to carry over — the vegetable gardening and stuff like that is still going to be high on people’s lists,” Schwall says.
One of the silver linings throughout the ordeal was the amount of industry support, Barnum says. IGC Facebook groups were a valuable source of information, tips and camaraderie throughout the uncertainty. Barnum especially praises the support of Little Prince of Oregon Nursery, because they designed Garden Center 911, a program in which garden centers could refer their products on social media and receive a 20% portion of the sale.
“It was just really cool to see another vendor, especially all the way out in Oregon on the other side of the United States, reaching out and really looking to help garden centers in this time of need. And that’s one thing I’ve always really appreciated about this industry. It’s the community — not necessarily your immediate community — but the community of the industry as a whole,” Barnum says.