Cook says that promotional signage for a plant swap should include “houseplant” or “indoor plants” to make the intentions of the swap clear for all attendees and to avoid any confusion.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF BARNES NURSERY

If there’s one thing houseplant lovers can’t resist it’s more plants. To reach this new and growing market of plant enthusiasts, Barnes Nursery is hosting houseplant swaps to create a space for plant parents to come together, share their excitement and get to know the Ohio IGC.

The idea came about when a Barnes Nursery store manager traveled to New York and saw an announcement for a plant swap at a shop in Brooklyn. Barnes Nursery had been looking for ways to connect with new houseplant customers and Jen Cook, general manager of retail operations, loved the idea. The IGC had been seeing an explosive growth of interest in houseplants and wanted to focus on those new customers.

“This idea seemed like something fresh and unique that this particular genre of customer would love,” she says.

Cook tweaked the idea to take it from a short event requiring entry tickets and turned it into a more laid-back, all-day event.

In the initial planning stages, Barnes Nursery considered requiring an RSVP, charging a fee, having a speaker and a few other options, but decided to keep it simple. “What we kept coming back to is this event isn’t about making money or maintaining a tight schedule,” Cook says. “It’s about providing a place for enthusiasts to gather and share plants, knowledge and information among themselves at their own pace. So we were happy to simply provide the event space and the swappers took it from there.”

Getting it going

To kick the swap off, employees propagated their own cuttings and rootings to supplement customers’ offerings and give early attendees more to choose from. The IGC also donated some plants from the greenhouse to fill ou the early offreings.

For the first year’s event, the IGC gave out one ticket for each plant swappers brought in. Participants could then trade that ticket for one plant of their choice but that format didn’t work well, Cook says, since attendees brought plants of all sizes.

“Some brought cuttings; some brought larger entire plants and some brought small starts,” she says. “We thought it might work better to leave it up to the swappers.”

So in the second year, they did away with the tickets and the swap went off without a hitch. Staff simply kept an eye out while attendees negotiated. “What we noticed is the swappers were all so kind to each other,” Cook says. “We had concerns there may be unbalanced swapping, but everyone was fair, generous and gracious.”

For example, if one swapper brought in a large potted plant, others would ask for a cutting rather than the whole plant to allow others a chance to grow one at home. Cook says there were no arguments or disagreements throughout the event.

Plant swap promotions

To get the word out about their swap events, Barnes Nursery worked with their graphics team to put out a promotional flyer including guidelines for the swap, specifying that only pest-free houseplants, not hardy varieties, were part of the swap. It’s key to include the terms “houseplant” or “indoor plants” prominently so that customers know what to bring.

“This event is strictly for the houseplant customer base so be sure to word it that way or you’ll have people showing up with lilac cuttings and hosta clumps,” Cook says. “Those are two very different customer bases and events.”

Staff handed those flyers out to store customers for three to four weeks before the big event and promoted it on their social media channels. In addition, there was a big banner promotion outside the storefront.

“We had a very simple black and white banner printed to hang outside the building in the weeks prior that read ‘Houseplant Swap Here” with the date and time,” Cook says. “The simplicity of the banner along with the fact that this was a unique event generated a lot of buzz.”

In its first year, the event was held in October, but after listening to feedback, Barnes moved the second swap to September. The move paid off and attendance increased.

Lessons learned

Over the past two events, Barnes Nursery has learned a lot. The garden center chose October for the first event in 2018, right before Ohio gardeners bring their houseplants indoors for the winter. “Our greenhouse was fairly empty so we had a great space and traffic was slowing down so we thought this would increase traffic,” Cook says.

After that first event, the garden center received feedback that the event was too late in the year, so in 2019, they moved the event to September. Cook says the move increased attendance, and the garden center still had a good stock of fall plants and décor, so the space was more inviting. That, combined with warmer weather, allowed attendees a more inviting space to wander outdoors, which provided a better overall experience.

They also learned that food wasn’t as big of a draw as they had originally anticipated. To kick off the event in the first year, Barnes Nursery provided brick oven pizzas, wine, craft beer, water and coffee, but while people loved the idea of pizza, the IGC noticed that not many people were actually eating it. Attendees were too busy in the greenhouse chatting and swapping. So in the second year, they switched it up and provided cookies and drinks, which was plenty to entice swappers, Cook says.

All in all, the events only took about a day to set up, outside of the time spent propagating plants to supplement the swap. And Barnes was able to do it all in an 8- by 4-foot space in their greenhouse.

While the garden center skipped the event last year due to the pandemic, Cook says she’s excited to host it again this fall. Previous events brought 30 to 50 people through the doors, but the event is more about creating goodwill than it is about customers or sales. Although there were a few sales of potting mix soil and rarer houseplants, Cook says it wasn’t a particularly profitable event. “It was more just about providing the space and getting people who have never been in the store before and just talking to them,” Cook says.

At the end of the day, the goal of the event — to bring in new customers — was definitely met.