How COVID-19 is causing the gardening industry to pivot
Modern Sprout, seller of in-home gardening products such as hydroponic kits that let budding gardeners grow basil, cilantro and other herbs in sleek tumblers, was doing 85 percent of its business through national department stores, independent gift shops and specialty chains. The remainder of its business was direct-to-consumer orders. Then coronavirus hit, and the same shops that have driven Modern Sprout’s business began canceling hundreds of thousands of dollars of purchase orders as shoppers stayed home. Like so many other companies, Modern Sprout found itself facing major disruption.
“This really has forced us to pivot, and I think it’s a good thing. It’s been something we’ve been meaning to do for a long time and it’s really forcing our hand” into expanding its online business and venturing deeper into marketing, says Sarah Burrows, who founded the company with her husband in 2013.
For companies like Modern Sprout, COVID-19 has brought a paradox. Consumers are more than ever interested in gardening, but what they are buying and how they are buying it has changed, causing industry players to rethink their own growth plans.
The spring of 2020 is expected to stand as a high point for businesses that are able to meet the rising interest in at-home gardening. The timing of the country shutting down was fortuitous, coming as the days were getting longer, and the weather was signaling it was time to do some planting.
Add to that the people nationwide who are creating the pandemic versions of victory gardens, whether to avoid going grocery shopping, because they care more about where their food is coming from, or just because they have more time at home.
Seeds, in fact, were already a growing business before the pandemic, with U.S. sales reaching $276.7 million in 2019, up nearly 24 percent from 2014, according to Euromonitor International. AmericanHort, a trade association for the horticulture industry, pegs the overall gardening industry’s annual sales at $346 billion, a figure that includes production, wholesale, retail and landscaping.
The pandemic also helped to create pent-up demand because in some parts of the country, garden centers weren’t able to be open for some time because they weren’t considered essential businesses. Elsewhere, options such as curbside pickup and delivery were put into more frequent use.
And the garden centers that have been open have been seeing strong sales, particularly of vegetables, according to AmericanHort, which has also noticed increases in sales of plants and shrubs.
W. Atlee Burpee Co., known for its seed catalogs, saw people embracing gardening during the Great Recession in the late 2000s and also after the 1987 stock market crash. “When economic distress hits, gardening really takes off,” says President and CEO Jamie Mattikow. Those that began gardening in the late 2000s were largely interested in growing vegetables, and many that stayed interested in the practice moved on to flowers. Until recently, Burpee had seen flower seed sales growing faster than vegetable seed sales. Now, vegetables are the driving force. “This is all about food right now,” says Mattikow.
While the buzz around gardening began growing when stay-at-home orders took hold, Burpee was seeing major increases in the number of gardeners even back in December and January, says Mattikow. Then there was a “tremendous spike” in interest this spring. People are buying roughly the same amount of seeds, there are just a lot more of them placing orders.
The number of people heading to Burpee’s site for information and guidance, including tips for new gardeners or how to set up a raised bed, is up 75 percent, says Mattikow.
Seeds of change
Katy Weil lives in Rhinebeck, New York, where she is in her third year of growing flowers for the wedding and restaurant industry. But by March, business for her company, Meribel Farm, was fast disappearing.
Rather than planting too many flowers, she decided it would be more beneficial to grow vegetables for her family and friends. So Weil took a third of the flower field and turned it into additional space for vegetable planting. “I’m growing three times as many veggies as I have in the past,” says Weil.
She’s not the only one. Weil says a local nursery that wasn’t sure it would be able to sell all of its products had a one-day, 50-percent-off sale in March. She went, and saw vegetable seedlings and fruit trees being snatched up. Weil says she probably knows 10 people who have set up raised beds this spring.
Weil and her family have owned the farm for 12 years and began gardening on a small scale at first. She now cultivates a range that includes asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, Kalette — a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts—leeks, onions, and potatoes.
Weil was growing so much, even before this year’s stepped-up vegetable planting, that “I never buy produce in the summer,” she says.
Weil’s husband, Chris, chairman and CEO of agency Momentum Worldwide, says it’s still amazing to see and taste how the garden-grown produce differs from anything they buy at the store. “Tomatoes are rewarding” to grow, he says.
The great outdoors
Lawn and garden products company Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. scrapped most of its planned spring marketing in March. “We realized it would be tone-deaf to use advertising to focus on product performance and promotions at a time that so many Americans were panicked about their physical and financial health,” Chairman and CEO Jim Hagedorn said on a conference call in early May. Instead, the company ran ads emphasizing why gardening and being outside matter. It also moved more of its media spending to digital instead of TV to better reach people who were searching for gardening advice, since its research suggested that as many as 30 percent of those who are gardening edible items this spring were either lapsed users or gardening for the first time.
In the week ended May 3, Scotts Miracle-Gro posted its strongest-ever seven-day period, with consumer purchases exceeding $190 million at its four largest retailers.
At Burpee, which sells through its catalog and elsewhere, seeds for vegetables and herbs “just took off” and haven’t really slowed down, says Mattikow. “This year is unprecedented in terms of sales and orders.”
Burpee began the year growing at a double-digit pace, and by March sales grew exponentially, says Mattikow, who is spending his second spring in the industry, having joined the leading home gardening company in March 2019. Sales to consumers and to retailers have been similar, says Mattikow. Seeds for items such as larger tomatoes, cilantro and basil, in particular, have been strong sellers, as well as lettuces, depending on the time of year. A “Bodacious” tomato featured on the cover of the company’s catalog quickly became one of Burpee’s most successful new items ever. People were also interested in a Burpee exclusive, a silky sweet turnip—yes, a turnip—that can be bitten into like an apple. Burpee even uses the line “How do you like them turnips?” in its description of the veggie. Mattikow’s family has three rows of them planted in their Pennsylvania yard.
For now, Burpee hasn’t made big changes to its marketing, which is done in-house, because it hasn’t had to do so. “Honestly, the interest in gardening has just intensified such that people are just coming to us at this point,” says Mattikow.
Burpee’s primary marketing tool is its catalog, which it began to send out in late November. The digital version of the catalog was “very successful this year,” says Mattikow. And in mid-May, it released a digital heirloom catalog with targeted digital and social marketing. The new catalog is organized by season, with products such as lettuces, radishes, beans and squash that may stoke interest among the many new gardeners who have already ordered from the company this year.
Burpee is working on increasing the amount of videos it has and how they are shared. The company has a limited presence on social media; its most popular video on YouTube, Growing Cucumbers in a Container, is from 2015. Mattikow wants to offer more information “in more simple, bite-size form” and make the videos more approachable, particularly for the people who are new to gardening.
Back at Modern Sprout, where wholesale orders to retailers were the company’s bread and butter, the founders knew they had to quickly ramp up their online efforts. And, as it turned out, shoppers were already searching. The company’s own online orders picked up “almost instantaneously” as soon as shelter-in-place plans went into effect, says Burrows.
There have been some obstacles. The company is still waiting to receive a watering can it ordered from India. Strong sellers include a self-care duo—a ceramic vessel that comes with a candle and once it is burned, seeds can be planted. Children’s activity sets “have also taken off,” says Burrows.
Modern Sprout, like others, has offered some discounts on product bundles on its site. It is considering ramping up advertising; until now it has spent very little, relying on efforts including influencer partnerships. It also offered products that were featured on “Good Morning America” and “The View.”
“While we lost a lot of sales, there’s still a lot of demand,” says Burrows.