Nursery owners across the state have seen a rise in indoor and outdoor plant sales, making customer retention top of mind.
The home gardening industry was on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but much like Zoom meetings and grocery delivery, the pandemic accelerated the trend. The sector grew 50% between 2016 and 2019, but bested that in 2020, with 71% year-over-year growth in North America in 2020, according to reports by the National Gardening Association and Greenhouse ManagementMagazine’s 2020 State of the Industry report.
Because Oregon is one of the leading states in the nation for plant nurseries, Oregon growers and garden store owners have felt the trend more than most, with business owners reporting a rush of new customers and increased sales over the last two years.
Now growers are focused on retaining these newcomers. using online classes and instructional videos and a wider social media presence to keep engage younger gardeners. Others insist there is no substitute for the in-person garden store experience.
According to a report by the Oregon Association of Nurseries, Oregon ranks third in the nation for overall nursery production, with more than $1 billion in sales in 2019. (California and Florida came in first and second.)
Since the pandemic hit, revenue has nearly doubled, with $1.9 billion in 2021 sales, according to Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.
“Oregon often leads the way when it comes to the nursery side because of our capacity to grow. Oregon plants sell to every corner of the country,” says Stone. “And right now, we are at the highest volume of sales we have ever been.”
In addition to pandemic isolation, the spike in plant purchasing may also be generational. The 2019 National Gardening Survey found 18- to 34-year-olds made up the majority of sales growth. An August 2021 article in Vox pointed to “climate anxiety and rising urbanism” as factors contributing to the home gardening trend.
Lori Vollmer, co-owner of Garden Fever! in Portland, meets regularly with fellow nursery owners at a buying co-op, where she says the topic of new customers comes up frequently at those meetings.
“We talk about all these new gardeners and how we are going to hold on to them as customers. Of course the way to do that is to keep them learning about gardening and having a successful time growing while doing so,” says Vollmer. “People are having more fun when they’re succeeding, but we also have to let them know it’s okay to fail.”
For Vollmer, providing education, a supportive gardening community and the educational garden store experience were essential to customer retention. That, she says, cannot be replicated online.
E-commerce has boomed throughout the pandemic, but Vollmer adheres to a business model she describes as as “low-tech.:
“We did a couple of Zoom things but that really wasn’t something people got into,” she says. “I’m hopeful next year we’ll be able to get back into onsite classes.”
Garden Fever! has added some technological capabilities, however. The company updated its website in 2020; the site doesn’t have an e-commerce function, but customers can now place orders via email. The site also provides visitors with a link to Growing Gardens, a nonprofit that provides virtual garden consulting.
Mark Bigej, co-owner of Al’s Garden and Home in Woodburn, Sherwood, Wilsonville and Gresham, his company moved quickly to set up an online ordering system in the spring of 2020, and employed a social media team.
Bigej says his company’s social media presence has “gained a lot of traction” in the last two years, and that social media like Facebook, TickTock and the company’s YouTube channel has helped reach and retain young gardeners. In addition to informational videos on gardening, the company recently created adance video for Beyoncé’s Drop It Challenge.
So far, Bigei says, sales of outdoor garden items like trees, shrubs and patio furniture have increased 60% compared to 2019. Indoor plants were not far behind with a 58% increase. Perennials were 38% higher and vegetables were up 30%.
“It’s just gotten exponential in the last couple of years,” says Bigej. “2020 was a record year for us. We were nervous about how we were going to keep the momentum going in 2021 but then that was another record year. And all signs are pointing to another big 2022.”
For Bigej, the boom in business means expanding the stores’ capacities and inventory. Supply chain issues have meant larger businesses like his have had to get more strategic about what plants and equipment to stock. Severe weather patterns, like last February’s ice storm and July’s heat wave, is a challenge gardeners new and old are dealing with, and techniques for dealing with them are still being developed. New products are more likely to fail in the extreme cold and the heat.
On the positive side, there has never been a better time for developing new techniques. A blossoming gardening sector has meant business has meant a broader and more connected gardening community. One in which techniques, tools and the latest technologies can be shared in real time.
“We’re trying to make lemonade out of it,” says Bigej.
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