Perhaps no one development in our lifetime has shaped and shifted consumer buying behaviors quite as dramatically as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost overnight, in-person and paper were on the way out, virtual and digital on their way in. Curbside pick-up and delivery services — enabling green industry products to meet the consumer where they currently prefer to be met, and not the other way around — are no longer optional for retail operations.
For an industry that has largely remained “on-paper” over the last couple decades, this was a big change that came on very, very fast. Yet, those that were prepared for such upheaval fared well in 2020.
Rob Sproule, co-owner and marketing director at Salisbury Greenhouse in Alberta, Canada, recently addressed how he thinks growers and retailers can keep up with these shifts in buying behaviors across the horticulture markets in a webinar with Garden Center magazine.
“Look, when this all started everyone was using the phrase back to normal. When are we going to ‘get back to normal?’,” Sproule says. “I think the writing is on the wall here that back to normal is not going to be us going back to our daily lives, going to Vegas on the weekends and hanging at the mall on Saturdays.”
How do growers prepare for Spring 2021?
Sproule, who also heads up green industry marketing agency DIG Marketing, believes the coming spring will closely resemble the last “pandemic Spring” that we all experienced in 2020, the only real difference being that the industry now knows what to expect and can plan ahead.
Planning for the swiftly approaching spring selling season should definitely include a focus on the green industries’ newest target demographics, Sproule advises.
“Quarantines brought the millennials out in full force. It even brought Gen Z out, which is the youngest generation of folks who are in their early twenties right now,” he says. “And these changes are here to stay.”
For the upcoming season, Sproule has three key “dos and dont’s” that growers should heed during the upcoming busy season:
- DO NOT plan to go back to business as normal in 2021, or even in 2022.
- DO approach your products, the future of your business, and even your customers with a blank slate in 2021. Get new data on your customers, survey them and find out more about them, and what they want and why they want it. Meet them there.
- DO make big moves in 2021, and own the big moves that you make. Take a stand, because today’s purpose-based consumer wants to know where you stand on things like pollinators and the environment, and even masking and social distancing. And make no mistake, they will vote with their dollars.
“2021 is not the time to be subtle. In March and April of last year the world was ending and we all kind of ran around in circles asking, ‘what do we do, what do we do?’” he says. “Those of us who made big moves probably did very well.”
Today, Sproule sees an industry in a relatively good place, with sales volumes steadily climbing and a scarcity of products to fill the shelves levering up consumer demand for plants and other ancillary products. Still, with so much uncertainty constantly looming on the horizon, he has penciled out the following five green industry trends as harbingers of still more positive days ahead:
The economy has shifted to a ‘homebody’ economy. With most consumers preferring to stay home as often as possible, household savings are up and generally speaking, debt and consumer spending are down. Consumers today are more focused on purchasing the essentials — things like food, water, medications, etc. — and they are more focused on jazzing up private spaces like backyards and their homes. “We’ve reviewed surveys where 74% of consumers say they aren’t planning to resume their previous in-person activities, even when the vaccines are widely adopted,” he explains. “One of the implications of this is the changing face of North America. People are living close to the office, close to the cities, and now with remote work that’s changing. People are moving out of the core city areas and into the suburbs, and we’re a largely suburban industry so that is good for us.”
Consumer values have also shifted. When the economy shifted from favoring non-essential purchases to a focus on the essentials, traditional storefront retail revenues were hit hard, and they have struggled to recover of late. The good news for the green industries is that many consumers view not only food and medicine as essential goods, but they also view plants in that light due to the wellness boost they perceive from having green, healthy plants around the house. Keep in mind going into the spring sales season that millennials and Gen Z’ers currently are obsessed with houseplants, and that is a fact that will not be changing anytime soon. “This is only going to keep going up,” he adds. He also recommends thinking outside the box on what crops you’re going to grow and market this season.
Plants and anything plant touching have been the big winners, and they will continue to win. “When this started last April, I thought this would really be a big boon for fresh produce and the edibles like tomatoes and peppers would go up, and they did,” Sproule recalls. “I was a little surprised though, because then everything started going up. The hanging baskets and the trees, and the perennials – those really started going nuts – and now of course we’re deep into the houseplants, which are surging. All these things are essential because they build up the living space where people are investing their time every day.”
Consumers are looking to you for control. The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the emotional, protest-filled U.S. Presidential Election season, both laid bare that there are a lot of things in life beyond our control. So naturally, consumers are looking to invest in and purchase things that they can control. “We send our kids to school and we don’t know if they’ll get sick. We go out and we don’t know if someone on the subway will cough on us and get us sick,” he explains. “Give your customers a sense of control. Be a sanctuary for your customers. Be that place where they want to go, where they feel safe and in control. Build all your procedures — masking, cashless transactions, wider aisles, whatever it may be — for the cautious consumer, because largely those are the people shopping for green industry products. And realize that there will always be haters, and ignore them.”
Health matters more than ever. The average consumer has never been more health conscious and more knowledgeable about health and wellness than today. “Now, it’s going to be even bigger. Plants are therapy, and they’re helping people stay healthy and happy at home,” Sproule says. “There are anxiety reducing plants, and millennials and Gen Z’s are looking for those plants as well as those that, for example, provide 30% cleaner air in the house. It’s not just about money anymore, it’s about living healthier and being able to fight off COVID.”
And as always, Sproule warns growers to not forget about all the people that take care of your plants and your business.
“A lot of us have had awesome sales, there’s lots of money in the bank, don’t think your staff doesn’t know that because they do,” he says. “Take care of them, whether it’s bonuses or doing something nice for them. It’s important, because they’re stressed out too, they have a lot of anxiety and they want to be a part of a team. Now is the time for authenticity, and transparency. It is not the time for corporate speak.”
Click here to listen to Sproule’s full talk on post-COVID buying trends.