The new plant parents: We’ve actually been here before

Departments - Hort Truths

Look to the past for ideas on how to keep horticulture’s current momentum going strong in 2022.

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September 28, 2021

© Delmaine Donson | ADOBESTOCK

There’s a lot of chatter in the industry right now about how to hang on to all the new pandemic gardeners who became our customers over the last two years. I’ve read a lot lately about these “new gardeners” and the sorts of things we should all be doing to keep them hooked on plants and spending on gardening products. But here’s the thing; there really isn’t anything revolutionary or “new” about most of what’s being said, or the current trends being described.

Hear me out on this one ...

From my perspective, here is what’s not new. It’s not a new trend that new gardeners get into the hobby with vegetables or houseplants as their gateway. That’s a typical and predictable path into a gardening hobby. It’s not new that more gardeners are mixing edibles into their ornamental landscapes or mixed planters. Edible landscaping and foodscaping, as well as inventive container plantings, were already a thing well before the pandemic hit. It’s not even new that new gardeners are growing more patio or balcony vegetable gardens or growing a ton of houseplants. Economic pressures have kept many would-be house buyers out of the market for quite some time now, fueling the trend of smaller urban dwellings and mobile gardens. The latest houseplant boom was seeded well before the pandemic and is also, like vegetable growing, a typical hobby gateway.

Plant parents freaking out about rare or unusual plants — like they are these days about aroids — isn’t even new. It’s just the new cycle of rare-plant mania revolves around foliage houseplants instead of tulip bulbs or orchids.

What is also not new is that new gardeners need good plant and gardening information, be it in the form of signage, tags, how-to POP, videos, classes … you name it. Engaging education has always been a part of successful customer relationship building and retention. You can refer to my columns on B2C customer marketing and education for growers in the 2016 GM February and May issues: bit.ly/hort-truths-action and bit.ly/hort-truths-message.

It’s not even that new that many growers are now selling directly to consumers, bypassing the retail outlets. I mean, that’s how a lot of plants used to get sold in our industry until retail garden centers developed as standalone entities. While there are now many growers just getting into the game of selling direct, there are also many who started out that way but eventually shifted into wholesale-only. The demand for online houseplant sales, specifically, has driven many wholesale growers back to direct-to-consumer sales.

Even the collective pandemic-induced anxiety that drove many to start digging in their backyards isn’t new. Collective cycles of “Weltschmerz,” a German word that translates loosely to “world weariness,” can be seen to repeat themselves through human history and always seem to correspond to an increased interest in plants and the natural world. You can see these cycles reflected in trends in fine art and design decor. It’s normal — not new — for people to turn to plants and nature when we are collectively stressed out.

What I’m saying here is, while we have a lot of new customers we need to hold on to, the basic roots of their new plant passions aren’t much different than they ever have been. Ultimately, we all know what our customers need and want and why they need and want it. It’s predictable, depending on what’s going on in the world, when there is opportunity in the world of gardening business. What’s old is always new again, at some point. And so here we are, again.

“Plant parents freaking out about rare or unusual plants — like they are these days about aroids — isn’t even new. It’s just the new cycle of rare-plant mania revolves around foliage houseplants instead of tulip bulbs or orchids.”

Shiny and new

So, what is new with this new crop of gardeners?

Well, I’d say that first off, it’s new for us to get the volume of new gardening customers that we got in such a short time, over the course of the pandemic. While many businesses were able to achieve solid financial gains, there were substantial struggles across the board. Clearly as an industry, we weren’t fully equipped to handle the increased customer load, demand for plants, and the need for digital commerce the way we were all forced to adopt — quickly. Digital innovation in the horticulture industry simply wasn’t up to speed. Coupling those strains with pandemic strains on the supply chain, meeting consumer demand for plants or products was simply not possible for many businesses. If we can’t get the plants customers want into their hands, there is a risk of losing them if shortages or significant price inflation dampens their new enthusiasm for the hobby.

Other important distinctions between our pre-pandemic and pandemic-induced consumer base include how we are selling and delivering to them directly, how they expect us to engage with them, and how and from whom customers are getting their horticultural information. Doorstep delivery from online ordering is now expected from just about every industry, and we’ve all become dependent on digital communication in place of in-person interactions and education. This digital dynamic has also created many social media influencer hobbyists in the gardening space, many of whom are not very experienced or well-versed in accurate information or techniques.

So, what should your customer retention priorities be?

We must scale or pivot to meet plant and product demand ... but can we even achieve that under pandemic pressures? If we can’t, then how do we adjust our marketing to drive trends and demand for what we can provide? We also need deeper investment in digital innovation when it comes to both commerce and communications; to meet our customers where their wallets and minds are — online.

Finally, it’s crucial we insert our voices as knowledgeable experts into the social media spaces where our customers are finding information and inspiration. If you want to have a voice in what your novice customer learns and desires, you need to use your voice to guide them.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com