Hydroponics might be a niche offering for hobby gardeners but offering a fully stocked hydroponics department can attract a solid customer base. Hydroponics offers customers the option to grow plants — vegetables such as tomatoes, herbs, hemp and a variety of others — in a specialized environment without the use of soil in a controlled area. Hydroponic aficionados can quickly grow plants without the fuss of pests by using special fertilizers and lighting systems. If your IGC dabbles in this department, here are the latest trends owners are seeing in the market.
The latest trend that’s making ripples in the market is LED light usage. Nino Pompei, co-owner of Pompei Nursery in Oakley, California, says most people who take up hobby hydroponic gardening grow exclusively indoors. And with that, he’s seen an increased interest in LED light systems, but notes it’s not a popular draw at Pompei Nursery due to competition from online retailers. He says the department is popular for its organic nutrients, organic pesticides, fungicides and soils.
“We don’t carry a lot of the lights and the systems anymore because, quite honestly, people find that stuff on Amazon or other online places that it’s impossible to keep up with the pricing,” he says.
The department does fairly well because it fulfills specialized needs for the curious customer or novice gardener, thanks to its wide range of nutrient-rich fertilizers and growing materials.
“There’s everything from grow tents to grow rooms set up, there’s all different types of material to put flood and drain systems. There’s a lot of ways to grow inside,” he says. “As far as ourselves, again, we mostly just deal with organic products that would assist the grower. And we’re pretty much one of the few areas in this region that deal with that specifically.”
Charles Burley, store manager at Atlantic Gardening Company in Raleigh, North Carolina, agrees that LED light systems have seen the biggest boom in hydroponics. That, and the fact that people have access to more resources to information and products than ever before.
“Well, more people are leaning towards the LED lights. I mean in general, just more common people are becoming a little bit more knowledgeable about the hydroponics,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people doing microgreens, a lot more people growing actual herbs just inside year-round and I’ve even seen a few people this year that are trying to grow outdoor vines indoors. So, they’re actually replacing their light bulbs with grow light bulbs to keep that growth going.”
Burley notes he even had one customer come in whose project was to grow a jasmine vine in her house. And while LED lights are popular, Atlantic Gardening offers everything from incandescent lights, fluorescent lights and even some of the older style high-powered sodium and metal halide bulbs. He notes that Atlantic Gardening tries to stay competitive with Amazon the best it can, and the only thing it can’t put a deal on are those LED lights because cutting a deal would be too pricey.
Mike Weeks, co-owner of Fifth Season Gardening, which has locations throughout North Carolina and one in Virginia, says the biggest change he’s noticed is the varying demographics of customers who have taken up hobby hydroponic gardening. In his area, he says there has been a surge of interest.
“We’ve certainly seen an increase in popularity of growing hydroponics. I don’t sell full systems, but I’ve seen definitely an increase of folks coming in to buy the materials to set up the sort of gravity-fed PVC systems, your hybrid MFTs,” Weeks says. “I actually did an offsite set up for 2-by-4 grow tents and LEDs, and some deep-water culture lettuce and greens.”
He notes that while the department has seen steady business from homeowners and hobbyists of all ages, there hasn’t been a change in what customers want to grow. However, he’s seen an increase of women who are taking up the craft.
“I’m probably seeing more women getting into hydroponics compared to the roots of the industry being totally dominated by men which is great,” he says.
Burley has also noticed a shift in customers who peruse the hydroponics department. Customers who are interested in growing tomatoes or peppers occasionally stroll in, but hemp is responsible for the influx.
“We do get quite a few of the local farmers for the hemp. I’ve actually seen quite a few young people in their 20 to 30s. But this year I’ve actually seen kind of an uptick, actually, in older people, like the 40 to 60 range.”
Since Pompei Nursery is located in California, cannabis is legal, and Pompei says a lot of customers who come into the store have been avid hydroponic cannabis growers, regardless of the plant’s legal status.
“I’d say the age group is somewhere ranging between 18 to 40. But, however, I have 70-year-old ladies that come in here and buy material for that. I have a lot of gentlemen that are, I’d say, in their 50s to 70s that grow,” he says. “A lot of these folks, for their whole life, cannabis has been something in the … what would you say ... in the society — whether it’s been legal or not. So, it’s not unusual to see someone who’s 50, 60 years old, man or a woman, growing cannabis.”Selling hydroponic equipment provides Pompei Nursery with an edge, since it supplies products that cater to these types of growers. “I’d say, the closest shop that carries the type of materials that we carry for that would be all the way out to Concord. So, we do see a lot of the local growers through this area,” he says.
When it comes to display, Atlantic Gardening provides customers with a clear view of and easy access to the items available for purchase.
“We’ve got a whole department. It’s actually the whole back wall of our store. I’ve got kind of the chemicals starting off, and then it goes into my grow tents, then into water pumps and air pumps, and then my lighting kind of leads into the corner, where I have a tent set up with the lights,” Burley says.
Atlantic Gardening offers fertilizer lines from FoxFarm, Happy Frog, General Hydroponics and most recently Botanicare, along with a water-soluble fertilizer from Lotus.
“I think that Lotus has been maybe in the last three or four years, and we’ve just recently got it in, and then the Botanicare has been out for a while, but we’ve just kind of like spread out our selection into their line as well,” he says. “General Hydroponics always sells really well. Probably after that would be the FoxFarm, just because it’s kind of become our general brand, so a lot of the hydroponics and the regular gardeners have started using it.”
Likewise, Pompei stocks nutrients from FoxFarm, Botanicare and General Hydroponics, as well product lines from Maxsea and Grow More. Price points for these vary.
“Most of the nutrients for that type of growing are slightly more expensive than something that would be, let’s say, for vegetable gardening, because they are more entailed in what’s in them. There’s everything from bat guanos, to worm castings, to microbes for root development,” Pompei says.
At Fifth Season Gardening, Weeks stocks the above fertilizers as well. “I’m selling a lot of the VEG+BLOOM because it’s a dry soluble and it’s pretty simple, one part. I still sell a lot of FoxFarm and I’m selling a decent amount of Canna. And then, the General Hydroponics kind of sells itself,” he says.
Pompei says they don’t do a lot of hydroponics advertising because the store has an established client base, and it helps that customers have faith in employees.
“We diagnose issues for folks if they’ll bring in a sample of a leaf in a bag, something that’s maybe got black rot, mold, mildew or something like that. They bring it in a Ziplock bag and we’re able to say, ‘This is what’s happening to your garden. This is what you need to fix it. So being a nursery, we’re able to offer that advice,’” he says.
Burley says Atlantic Gardening has found success through social media outlets such as Instagram and Facebook, along with weekly newsletters. Facebook has especially been great for word-of-mouth advertising because the store has joined hemp groups, where many of the members swap questions and advice.
Weeks says his IGC focuses on SEO methods to help boost searchability.
“If you type in one of the brand names of the nutrients or soils we carry, we’re going to pop up,” he says.
In regard to the coronavirus, Burley says customer traffic has increased.
“I’ll say just in general; it’s been kind of amazing how many people have come in just because they’re more or less forced to stay home. But I think part of this year is just the general curiosity to get out and try it,” he says.