April 6, 2020 By Greta Chiu
As the public continues their social distancing measures amid COVID-19 recommendations, independent garden centres have made the difficult decision to close their retail fronts to visitors. But for some, this experience has only spurred their businesses forward in new directions.
For Heeman’s, this change has driven the garden centre near London, Ont. to build an online store. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Within 28 hours of opening online, Heeman’s received 35 orders that were ready for delivery the following morning, and they’ve kept up with their quick turnaround times and high standards of service. After 5 days, they fulfilled over 250 orders online with over 100 done by phone.
Usually the number one reason why a garden centre hasn’t turned to online sales before is because of logistics, says Will Heeman, Chief Daymaker at Heeman’s. Managing in-store stock and online inventory at the same time can be difficult, which is why their business hasn’t sold items online until now.
Currently, about 75 per cent of their orders are for curbside pickup. “I think people are still looking for an excuse to get out of their house for a bit,” says Heeman. Customers familiar with their in-store offerings have been ordering by phone and requesting seeds, particular pots seen on a previous visit and other specific items.
“Our goal is to have as much of the [retail] store online as possible,” says Heeman. The online store currently lists over 250 different products, each with options for colour and size. “We started with seed-starting supplies, soils, houseplants, hard cider and spring plants,” he continues, and from there, they hope to expand it to include pottery, nursery stock and perennials.
It goes without saying that the online experience won’t come anywhere close to the in-person store experience. Heeman’s was designed to be a destination, incorporating a café into their retail store, hosting a number of crowd-drawing events each year and even adding a hard cidery to their operation. “I feel very passionately that we are a retail experience,” Heeman says. “But for now, this is what we need to do to serve our customers and keep our staff employed.
Back in the greenhouse, Heeman says they’ve cut back on production, reducing transplants of spring annuals. Though he estimates only making a small fraction of their normal sales, it’s still something. Plus, they’ve been able to keep their staff employed during a time of layoffs and losses for the floriculture sector. “Greenhouse workers is considered an essential service,” he explains. They’ve reassigned their retail employees to e-commerce duties to include pulling orders, answering phones and coordinating deliveries.
With much of the public isolated in their homes, Heeman expects a later purchasing and buying season than normal, but at a higher level of engagement. They’re going to want to be outdoors even more, he predicts. “People are going to be even more interested in growing their own food.”
Food gardening coaches unite
Food gardening has been a steadily growing trend, but with self-isolation and social distancing measures in place, its popularity is expected to rise even more this season for its healthy, outdoor appeal.
Seeing the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation months ago, Christie Pollack had a feeling that she would eventually have to shut down her garden centre in High Prairie, Alta. But the owner of Christie’s Gardens and Greenhouses strangely wasn’t panicked. In fact, she was feeling invigorated at the chance to start something new.
A known influencer who creates online resources for new plant aficionados on her website, Learn. Plant. Grow., Pollack kicked off a new online venture to help beginners take up food gardening from the comforts of their own home. Inspired by her own life coach, Pollack launched the aptly named Grow Your Own Food Challenge to help participants through the process of starting a garden over the course of two months
Joined by fellow Albertan growers Nadine Stielow of Thiel’s Greenhouses, Jason Anderson of Kathy’s Greenhouses and Debbie Foisy of Deb’s Greenhouse, participants not only receive regular prompts from these four professionals, but personalized coaching along the way. All this takes place through their private Facebook community, and participants are free to post photos and questions as they need.
Not only is this challenge designed to give them information, explains Pollack, participants learn how to do their own research and decide whether the information is reliable. “They have to be able to find the information on their own after the course is over.”
Pollack and Stielow both see this as a healthy outlet for quelling feelings of anxiety and of unease over COVID-19 in their communities. “Right now [the group] is a positive space away from all the noise,” says Pollack, “Let’s focus on something they can do…something that is actionable.” Stielow agrees, “People need to know that we’re connected in our community and we’re ready to help out.”
Both avid supporters of using biological controls in the greenhouse, the duo is about to debut another new initiative. “It’s called Bug School,” Pollack reveals, and it’s launching in a matter of weeks. From scouting to targeted control, the online resource will teach home gardeners how to protect their plants from pests. “We talk a lot about biologicals, [and] and where to look on the plant for pests, their lifecycle, and how to treat them.”
“A lot of people, when they see mechanical damange, they think bugs,” says Stielow, “but it isn’t always. Sometimes it’s disease. And if it is a bug, is it piercing or sucking? What are they watching for?” Similar to the goals of the food gardening challenge, Bug School is about arming participants with the right tools. “It’s about simplifying the language but still giving them enough information so they can keep researching,” says Pollack.
As for their own operations, Pollack closed her retail business to visitors in mid-March, has since opened up an online retail store and is offering curbside pick-up. Depending on how COVID-19 conditions and restrictions change, she’s hoping to re-open the retail operations to small groups in May.
With the help of friends and family, Stielow set up her online store in just four days and has also been offering curbside pick-up. “I think it’s going to be a phenomenal spring,” she says. Their production has stayed the course, though like Heeman, she predicts a later start to the spring sales season. Her customers have already been phoning about vegetables, herbs and food-related products, but notes that flower are still at the forefront of people’s minds.
“I’m looking forward to see how the season plays out,” says Pollack, who sees the current situation as a challenge – one that has pushed them to innovate. “We’re going to come out with better ideas for our business in the long run.”
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