The new normal
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The new normal

Here’s how garden centers and landscape contractors are tuning their businesses to fit the unique demands of operating under COVID-19.

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April 25, 2020

Ever since the novel strain of the coronavirus, COVID-19, hit the shores of North America in mid-March, many businesses have scrambled to maintain their profits and normal operations in the face of a pandemic. Under new social distancing rules, along with the new guidelines for businesses deemed “essential,” nurseries might feel uncertain on how to proceed in the climate. In this article, Nursery Management takes a look at the landscape and garden center markets to see how the other green sectors are faring, along with the outlooks for the horticulture industry as a whole.

Independent garden centers

Many nurseries supply independent garden centers (IGCs), so it is crucial to understand how the IGC sector is hitting back against the virus. One of the ways IGCs have been successful with profits is through no-contact sales, curbside pickup and the use of online or virtual video chat shopping. What’s more, gardening has become a popular activity for the general public, and many citizens have become emboldened to plant their own victory gardens.

Rob Sproule, founder of DIG Marketing and co-owner/marketing director at Salisbury Greenhouse, shared his ideas and resources for new ways IGCs can do business in a webinar that was hosted by sister publication Garden Center magazine (Listen to the full recap here).

In a spot of good news, he mentioned the rising need for IGCs during this time.

“Our customers have never needed us more. And our customers are going to need us more in the coming months than they ever have before. Everyone needs to garden right now. Everyone needs the escape of a garden,” he said. “Everyone’s going to grow their own food. This year is going to be a return to gardening, and this is going to change our industry for decades to come.”

Sproule said the pandemic is going to be a huge change for the industry. But the industry has to focus on getting through this first. One of the biggest concerns for retailers is the question ‘Are we essential or not?’ This is a question that has plagued much of the green industry, and many state governments did not have crystal clear answers in March when a lot of the executive orders were announced. However, the issue of IGCs deemed as an essential business vary by state, and as of publication date, most IGCs are considered essential.

“IGCs are typically exempt because they sell edible plants, seeds and tools or hardware. Especially growers,” Sproule said. When non-essentials close down, the best thing IGCs can do is talk to each other and work together.

“This is where the industry needs to come to together.” He suggested retailers join the 2,000-person Facebook group called IGC Talks. “It’s a great place to learn and find connections about what’s happening.”

Sproule said the industry is in war-time mode, and the grassroots victory garden movement is real. “Everybody is going to be growing their own food this year, I cannot emphasize this enough. Everybody is going to be in the garden, everybody is going to be looking at their own gardening spaces,” Sproule said.

He noted that spring rushes and sales peaks would be affected even if the coronavirus peaks had slowed down, as the world will still be in social distancing mode. IGCs have to prepare for what a spring looks like with very few customers in the store. There will most likely be capacity limits, which means there won’t be any big sales events. However, IGCs can handle this through zero-contact sales.

“Zero-contact sales is, simply, put, getting a product — say a tomato plant — from you, to the customer, with no contact or risk of infection between you.”

Those tactics include the following steps:

1 Prepare in-store. This means staff needs to follow social distancing protocols and take down any displays that force people to cram together. Get rid of cash payments altogether and wipe cashier stations down frequently. Offer stations for people to wipe down their carts as well.

2) Tap payments. If customers have a large payment, offer to split it for them so they can do two tap payments, so they don’t have to touch your keypad.

3) Staff honesty. Being honest with staff members and holding everyone accountable will keep your staff reassured. If things are uncertain – like the possibility of layoffs – management needs to be honest. It’s an uncertain time, and it’s better to tell employees that you don’t know what the future holds for the business instead of instilling false hope.

4) If you have workshops and classes, host them online. Sproule suggests putting kits together and livestreaming those workshops.

“Your customers need you now more than ever. They need to see green. They need to see flowers and life. You need to remind them that spring is coming,” he said.

Many IGCs are already conducting zero-contact sales, and sister publication Garden Center magazine took a look at some of the ways these businesses can succeed (read the full story here). Hillermann Nursery & Florist in Washington, Missouri, has used curbside pickup as an alternative method to pull in the sales. With traffic down, the nursery is using any means possible to stay afloat, and by conducting sales with curbside pickup, there’s hope for the IGC to pull in some sales.

Another trend that is gaining traction is the return of the victory garden. IGCs can capitalize by selling seed packs and gardening tools. Customers across the country have taken this trend to heart and have started to grow their own produce, reassuring the horticulture industry that gardening is not canceled (read the full story here)

Landscape

Many landscaping businesses are operating much in the same way as IGCs. Some of these companies are cautious, while others are still producing sales.

As with the IGC market, most landscape businesses are deemed essential. Some helpful information gleaned from a webinar hosted on April 3 from sister publication Lawn & Landscape magazine found that these businesses have greatly altered their operations (read the full recap here). Results from a survey that asked participants what steps they were taking to ensure worker safety during the outbreak found the following:

  • 39% of employees now work remote
  • 28% implement staggered work hours
  • 49% conduct meetings outside
  • 28% have temporarily shut down
  • 66% of businesses do extra cleaning
  • 36% commute directly to a jobsite
  • 14% used methods not listed

Columnists and industry consultants Jim Huston (J.R. Huston Consulting), Ed Laflamme (The Harvest Group) and Bruce Wilson (Bruce Wilson & Co.) shared what tactics these businesses show focus on most.

The first thing the panelists recommended was to spend accordingly. Planning is extremely important, but in the face of possible recession, it’s crucial to think of a business plan for the short-term and the long-term – while managing cash flow.

“The worst thing you could do is lay off your people,” Laflamme said. “It could ruin your culture.”

Lawn and landscape businesses must proceed with caution, and many operations are currently doing so through increased sanitation efforts and social distancing behaviors. Wearing face masks, staying six feet apart and outdoor meetings are all crucial worker behaviors that will curb the potential spread of disease and keep workers and customers healthy.

It’s also crucial for these businesses to increase their communication. This is due to customers canceling, or jobs being put on pause. All of the panelists advise that landscapers contact their customers before they cancel and explain their plans of action. This way, businesses won’t lose out on any opportunities.

“Approach them before they cancel,” Wilson said. “Ask customers questions about how this is affecting them, and what they are concerned about. You’ve got to pick up the phone…become a resource for them.”

Another tactic the panelists suggested was to buy low and stay involved. For example, acquiring a small, owner-operated business could be a good move for a larger company right now.

However, depending on the state these businesses are located in, it’s possible certain companies may not be deemed essential.

“Get involved with your state association and also your local representatives,” Huston said. “What’s surprising is how inconsistent these definitions are as far as what is an essential business.”

The last piece of advice the panelists shared was to stay positive.

“Owners that have a very positive mindset seem to be having positive results, and the owners who have a somewhat defeated attitude about it are taking their lumps,” Wilson said.

Lawn and Landscape also found that each business had different methods of responding to the coronavirus crisis (read the full story here). In its report roundup, Rapoza Landscape, which is located in East Falmouth, Massachusetts, said it had seen an uptick in business because its customers sought refuge in their second vacation homes. This harkens back to the experts’ advice, in that there are still business opportunities available for the companies that seek them.

 J. Barker Landscaping Company, which is located in Bedford, Ohio, reported that it had closed its main office but was still operated in a limited capacity. As of date of publication, the landscaping industry is deemed an essential business. Many businesses reported a change in day-to-day operations like the examples mentioned previously (such as social distancing), but many said they were worried about the uncertainties the coronavirus would bring, particularly in the workforce and new job requests from customers. It’s tough to know how much of an impact the coronavirus will have on the horticulture sector, but green businesses should strategize by remaining hopeful, following CDC guidelines and conducting business in any capacity they can.