Growers and retailers tap into a renewed interest in indoor plants
Lisa Eldred Steinkopf is addicted to houseplants and has a huge collection to prove it. She recently published a 272-page hardback book on the subject, Houseplants: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing and Caring for Indoor Plants.
“If I had only paid a dollar for every plant, I’d have at least $1,000 tied up,” she said.
Enthusiasts like Lisa are a welcome sight for any retail nursery owner, but for a long time they were few and far between — at least when it comes to houseplants. For many, houseplants were something their mom grew in the 1970s.
Echeverias, succulents, tillandsias, orchids and tropicals are making a resurgence on the local and national scene. Recent houseplant sales figures reflect the trend.
“Houseplants are getting more popular every season,” said Judy Alleruzzo, a plant buyer with Al’s Garden & Home, a retailer with four Oregon locations. “A few short years ago it was not a big interest department. The increase in popularity of tillandsias and huge assortment of unique succulents are helping to drive our houseplant department sales, which have increased 14.8 percent as of December 2017.”
Jennifer Williams, a plant buyer and merchandiser with Dennis’ 7 Dees Nursery & Landscaping in Portland, Oregon, has also noticed steady growth. The nursery’s indoor plant sales for 2017 were up 18 percent over the prior year, she said.
Fessler Nursery, a wholesale greenhouse grower with seasonal retail on the side, has observed the same rise in interest.
“(Our houseplant sales to) retailers have really grown in the last two years,” said Dale Fessler, manager of houseplants and co-owner at the nursery. “We’ve been striving to offer more houseplant cultivars to our clients.”
Houseplants can also be deployed in business and corporate spaces. Kathy J. Fediw, is president of Johnson Fediw Associates, a consulting firm that works with interior plantscape companies.
“I’ve seen an increase in office plant sales of 15 to 30 percent, depending on the city,” she said.
Interiorscapers regularly install blooming orchids, bromeliads and other tropicals and houseplants in corporate office buildings, changing them out every four to eight weeks.
Tapping into interest
Any retailers hoping to sell more houseplants would be wise to target millennials, generally defined as the 80 million people born between 1977–2000. Their spending is expected to reach $1.4 trillion in 2020, according to a study by Accenture.
According to Mark Leichty, director of business development at Little Prince of Oregon Nursery, a wholesale greenhouse grower in Aurora, Oregon, houseplants can be an initial entry point for customers who may graduate to larger purchases
“Consumers like the idea of growing things indoors — everything from purifying the air to cool plants that are just fun to grow and look at,” he said.
But there’s a caveat. Those who monitor trends have noted that fear of failure can drive consumer behavior, particularly among millennials. Alleruzzo has noticed that they will look for information in YouTube videos and come looking for what they see.
“Many customers are decorators and desire specific plants in their home because they found it in a home décor magazine,” she said.
Giving these customers a successful first experience with plants is key to earning repeat business.
Fred de Boer, owner of Mainland Floral Distributors Ltd, a major supplier of houseplants based in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, suggested that independent garden centers (IGC) should look for ways to stand out as well as ways to help the customer succeed.
“Differentiate yourself from the big box stores,” he said. “Don’t try to compete on price on the basics. Instead, offer unique items and education by offering classes, pots, tools, books (and other aids). IGCs are the source for ideas and knowledge.
Removing the guesswork
Growers must decide what to grow and buyers must decide what to stock. De Boer says that his approach is to let sales figures drive future offerings.
“We are like disc jockeys — you request, we play,” he said. “If an item goes viral it may influence demand, but ultimately our customers decide.”
Alleruzzo peruses industry trade magazines, Pinterest and home decor magazines for new ideas on what to order.
Williams, of Dennis’ 7 Dees, said open dialogue with customers is important. “One of the most important ways to keep a pulse on what is in demand is by listening to what customers are asking for and what they’re excited about,” she said.
Brian Jacob, West Coast territory manager for ForemostCo®, a Florida-based broker of young plant starts, said that company marketers follow social outlets such as YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram. However, trends aren’t always easy to read.
“How do we take information provided by social media and make the best use of it for our own B2B operations?” he asked. “There are a lot of pins originating in Europe. By the time social media has discovered a new plant, there are typically many years of effort already invested by the professional young plant supplier network.”
Justin Hancock, Costa Farms Horticulturist, says many growers show plants that are not yet commercially available to see what response they get from trade show attendees before going into full production. Attending TPIE, Cultivate and MANTS are great for trend spotting.
By combining educated guesswork, customer dialogue and crystal ball gazing, growers can predict what customers will want and determine how best to provide it.
Ways to target consumers
Here are the top 10 tips for targeting consumers that were offered by growers and retailers interviewed for this story:
| 1. Offer something bulletproof.
Houseplants that are easy for brown thumbs to grow — such as tender succulents, Sago Palms, Zanzibar Gem, Pothos, Sansevieria and Philodendrons — represent a win-win for retailers. Those that also sport a bit of color are even better. Aglaonemas and Syngonium can be very colorful.
If a plant can serve a dual purpose, that also helps. Plants like Aloe Vera clean the air, have medicinal usages and look cool. ForemostCo® offers certified, organic sourced Aloe that is perfect for dual-purpose houseplant category. Spathiphyllum is an excellent, low-light interior plant with attractive white flowers most of the year. It will last multiple years with minimal care. Curcumas are great tropical patio plants. They can be brought into garage and left to go dormant. Trot them back out once the weather warms again allows plants to become fuller and floriferous every year.
| 2. Bring back miniature gardens.
Mini-houseplants less than 2 inches tall are all the rage on the East Coast. The fairy garden craze has not hit the Pacific Northwest with the same ferocity yet, but Al’s Garden & Home, Portland Nursery, Garland Nursery and others have been ahead of the bell curve, selling a wide variety of fairy garden plants. They offer a wide range of books, tools and do-it-yourself classes in creating fairy gardens.
| 3. Make mine macramé.
Amongst younger folks, macramé holders are all the rage. Millennials love the retro, kitsch look paired with succulents, tillandsias, orchids, ferns, air plants, and glass terrariums. When macramé holders show up in JoAnn Fabrics, Pier 1 Imports, Michaels craft stores as well as Crate and Barrel catalogs and Etsy sites at the same time, it’s time for garden retailers to take note.
| 4. Tag, you’re it!
Most houseplants lack the branded or detailed information ornamental growers typically provide on plant tags. That’s an oversight. Most women’s and men’s clothing items sport 2–3 tags per item. Contrast that with houseplants — many lack even one! According to Dale Fessler, Fessler’s Nursery recently added them. “Until we entered the retail market, we weren’t tagging our houseplants, but now we are,” he said. According to Williams, Dennis’ 7 Dees recognized houseplant tags as an upgrade for 2018 to help drive increased sales.
5. Edutainment as a sales tool.
| 6. Signage: the silent, 24/7 salesperson.
When the seasonal crunch time ensues and staffing is an issue, do not forget about signage. Al’s uses rotated signage to give more information about plants in stock. They also try to use light requirement stickers to identify high, medium and low light plant varieties. “We have made a conscious commitment to have knowledgeable staff people available to customers to help them select plants for their homes, offices or as gifts,” Alleruzzo said.
| 7. Would you like soil with your plant?
Plants generally do not enjoy a huge mark-up, but soils, tools and other sundry items do. Asking the customer if they want soil or fertilizer can boost retail sales immensely. Add-on items such as baskets, glass, macramé holders, books, specialized soils, fertilizers, and specialized tools offered online, in merchandised displays, endcaps or classes can turn a $3.99 sale into a $25–$50 sale.
“There are endless opportunities for add-on sales with indoor plants,” Williams said. “We have good success with specialty soils and fertilizers, decorative moss and rocks for top dressings, and indoor pottery.
We have added a few items this year such as macramé hangers, cork pieces and other unique plant display items that are trendy. We have surely not yet tapped the full potential of this department.”
|8. Get into training.
Houseplants can be an afterthought at retail nurseries, particularly for front-line employees. To avert this possibility, Al’s Garden & Home pays specific attention to houseplants in its staff training. The company hosts a spring refresher class for all staff and seasonal employees so they are ready to answer questions, help customers, and keep the department properly merchandised. “Our specialized houseplant lead employees shadow veteran staff gathering in-depth information to keep the department clean, plants stocked and well-cared for in their daily routine,” Alleruzzo said.
| 9. Be aware of ‘the Amazon effect.’
As everyone in retail knows, Amazon’s share of holiday shopping dollars, and retail dollars in general, is going up. Independent garden centers and wholesale nurseries are not immune. Millennials are purchasing houseplants from non-traditional sources. The rise of PayPal and Square payment apps, Etsy and Facebook are technology disruptors impacting traditional brick and mortar retailers.
If that’s not enough to cause concern, Amazon has made moves into brick-and-mortar retail and recently introduced its cashless, contact free retail store concept in Seattle where you walk in, pick up your merchandise, walk out and are charged automatically.
| 10. Know that people want to live with plants.
Shrinking home lots and yards are becoming nearly non-existent inside urban growth boundaries. Houseplants bring the outside indoors — providing enjoyment to young and old alike. Hop on the houseplant train to offer your customers a wee bit of green happiness year-round.
Dawn Hummel is the president and CIO of BeeDazzled Media LLC, a firm specializing in marketing for small B2B horticulture and floriculture customers. She has more than 20 years of experience in retail garden centers and wholesale nurseries, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-784-0691.