In February, coronavirus was barely a blip on the radar in North America. By mid-March, many U.S. states issued lockdown orders and closed non-essential businesses to curb the spread of the virus. The public turned to victory gardening and other outdoor activities to reconnect with nature, and many IGCs adapted to serve customers’ needs on a dime. Vegetable seed starter packs and gardening supplies were quickly snatched up by eager patrons, and IGCs saw a boom of profits.

However, IGCs located in Pennsylvania and Michigan had a tougher break than most when the pandemic first started, as their businesses were not initially deemed “essential” by their state governments. Garden Center spoke with three IGCs to learn how their business overcame the initial shutdown slump, and the biggest lessons they’ve learned since it all began.

Michigan

On March 23, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order that directed ‘non-essential’ businesses to suspend in-person operations and told residents to stay home if at all possible. Under section 8a of the order, all agricultural industry businesses were considered essential and could remain open. However, retail garden centers weren’t specified, and their status was unclear.

PHOTO © Felipe Sanchez | ADOBE STOCK

The next day, English Gardens (No. 13 on Garden Center’s 2019 Top 100 List) announced via that it had been ordered to close down. John Darin, president, says the impact was immediate. The IGC, which has six locations scattered throughout the metropolitan Detroit area, scurried to preserve its cash flow. Darin says they had to go into “survival mode” and furloughed 225 employees (most of whom have now been rehired), leaving only a skeleton crew to provide curbside service.

“We had to preserve cash flow; we had to hold up shipments and we had to stop our seasonal hiring until we could get back open,” Darin says.

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion relief package designed to assist citizens struggling from the COVID-19 economic impact. The CARES Act introduced the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small business owners, allowing them to apply for a loan that provided them with “the resources they need to maintain their payroll, hire back employees who may have been laid off, and cover applicable overhead” according to the U.S. Treasury. In order to survive, English Gardens applied for PPP assistance — a process that went well, Darin says.

“Now one of the things that happened during that time is that, while we were closed, for about two weeks, she left the box stores’ garden centers open. Finally, there was enough pressure put on the governor to shut all the non-essential departments in the box stores,” Darin says. “But in essence, the box stores’ plants were deemed more essential than ours, which was clearly upsetting.”

On April 5, The Herald-Palladium reported that the Benton Township Police ordered Lowe’s to cease sales on non-essential garden center items. Two days later, the Michigan Farm Bureau urged its community members to message Whitmer to clarify the order and deem retail plant sales as essential.

Ray Schwall, general manager of Begick Nursery & Garden Center in Bay City, Michigan, assumed garden centers would be deemed essential. Begick’s didn’t have to close down right away, but the IGC did have to lay off most of its employees. Begick’s (No. 78 on our 2019 Top 100 List) also applied for PPP assistance and started doing curbside pickup.

“You know, the weeks leading up to it, [the staff] kept asking me and I kept on saying, ‘No, no, we’re going to be OK. We’re a garden center. In all the other states, they let garden centers stay open.’ Well, guess what? [Whitman] had a different mindset, and we weren’t OK,” Schwall says.

Begick’s offered a gift card program with a 20% added bonus to bolster the loss of sales, a strategy that worked far better than the company ever hoped. “You would think people would be buying the $25 or $50 gift cards. No, we were selling $3,000 gift cards and stuff like that. That’s how amazing people were,” Schwall says.

Likewise, English Gardens offered $20 gift card incentives for patrons who spent $100, and Darin says customers showed tremendous support.

On April 9, Whitmer issued another executive order extending the initial order and introducing more shutdowns, this time including all IGCs and garden-related sections of big-box stores.

The Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA) filed a federal lawsuit to stop the order on April 17. And on April 24, Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-59, which extended the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order until May 15, but allowed retail garden centers, nurseries and greenhouses to return back to work.

In May, Begick’s donated hydrangeas to support frontline workers at McLaren Bay Region.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MCLAREN BAY REGION

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania IGCs also dealt with a similar situation. Shaina Barnum, garden center manager and marketing/events coordinator at Froehlich’s Farm and Garden Center in Furlong, Pennsylvania, calls the experience “unnerving.” In fact, the IGC was only open for one day before it received the order from Gov. Tom Wolf to shut down on March 20.

Froehlich’s applied for “essential status,” which was denied, but it could still sell items via curbside pickup. So the garden center received orders from every available avenue, including phone and email. Barnum notes this was a positive thing, but with limited staff, it was hard to fulfill orders.

“Immediately we figured out a way to reinvent our business model overnight. It was really unclear who was actually essential and who was not. And it kept changing day to day. It felt like every day we were on tippy toes waiting for whatever the new information was,” Barnum says.

Greenhouse, nursery and floriculture production operations, as well as landscape service companies, were deemed essential, according to the Pennsylvania Nursery and Landscape Association (PNLA). Like Michigan, big-box stores were allowed to remain open, but The Sentinel reported these had been ordered to close down on April 7. PNLA submitted an exemption for retail garden centers on April 1, which Wolf denied on April 10.

“We had customers calling us like, ‘Hey, what can we do?’ ‘What can I buy from you right now?’ ‘What can we do for a curbside?’ or, ‘I’ll buy a certificate.’ So, it was really kind of cool to see the community really reaching out to us, and other small businesses, just to really kind of keep everyone with everyone afloat and going,” Barnum says.

Rebuilding & strategizing

Employees at Froehlich’s stop to “smell the roses.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF FROEHLICH'S FARM & GARDENS

On April 25, English Gardens reopened — and received its PPP money on same the day.

“During this time of being closed down and operating with curbside only, more ‘essential business’ details were clarified and it was noted any business with a nursery license was considered essential,” Barnum says. With this new information in hand, Froehlich’s announced on April 26 it would reopen on May 1, the same day Begick’s reopened.

Schwall says the moment the news announced they could reopen, phone lines exploded off the hook, and describes the reopening process as “hectic” because they assumed their reopening date would be May 1.

“At the time, we had received our PPP through the federal government. So we started to bring back a few of the girls and some of the guys, and we were working as the stock was coming in, trying to get the store ready for that May 1 opening,” Schwall says. “Well, our governor threw us a wrench and the week before that she actually came on and said, ‘You guys can open not a week from now, but you can open now.’ Well, that was a little bit more difficult to turn that.”

Once they were open, all three stores also had to adjust to the COVID-19 world. New protocols included heavy sanitation wipe downs, revised store hours, social distancing markers, face mask policies, one-way aisles, sneeze guards and outdoor registers. There was an overwhelming surge of demand, and right off the bat, garden seeds and plant starters sales experienced an upswing.

“We came very close to selling absolutely all the way through our seed inventory, and we’ve never done that,” Schwall says.

Darin says the pandemic taught him to be opened-minded and quick, and he learned some valuable business lessons. “Normally in May in June (and part of April) we’re open 13 hours a day. So, we had a reduction of almost 30% of the store hours. Sales were robust. We saw great sales increases in May, and June and July,” Darin says. “In essence, the lesson we learned is we could do more business in less hours with less inventory and less staff than we ever thought possible.”

He also notes they’ll likely stick with outdoor registers to maintain the flow of customer traffic in store. For both Darin and Barnum, COVID-19 spurned an e-commerce reckoning.

“We were just in the process, in March, of redeveloping our website. And we had the e-commerce portion of it on our radar — we were already doing e-commerce the last few years for Christmas and things like that. We really had to put a lot of investment and horsepower into developing the e-commerce site. So that was probably a good thing,” Darin says.

They’ve rolled it out but haven’t promoted it too much, because changing inventory across the six stores is challenging to keep track of on the e-commerce site, Darin says.

Barnum says that while their site doesn’t have an e-commerce portion, it did force them to create a Shopify account. It’s not currently active and running, but it’s in place as a security measure should they be ordered to shut down again. Orders can be directly placed on Shopify, so a limited staff won’t be inundated with phone or email orders.

In the event of another shutdown, Darin says they took measures to ensure they would be considered essential. They looked to hardware stores for inspiration, as Whitmer had allowed these to remain open. They added a small inventory of pet food, cleaning supplies, automotive supplies and promoted the cannabis growing area.

“So we put in all these essential departments that we’ve got photographs of and everything else, so if we ever get challenged as an essential business again, besides just saying, ‘OK, we sell all these edible products, food products, we’re also selling these items as well,’” Darin says.

Darin, Schwall and Barnum note that they’re currently in the process of planning for next year and are unsure of what the coming seasons will bring.

“We are starting our spring buying for next year, but there’s so many question marks. How can you expect to do the kind of business that we did this year, next year? I don’t know if that’s possible or not. Is the pandemic going to be gone for next year? Are we still going to be limited? My personal feeling is, I think some of this is going to carry over — the vegetable gardening and stuff like that is still going to be high on people’s lists,” Schwall says.

One of the silver linings throughout the ordeal was the amount of industry support, Barnum says. IGC Facebook groups were a valuable source of information, tips and camaraderie throughout the uncertainty. Barnum especially praises the support of Little Prince of Oregon Nursery, because they designed Garden Center 911, a program in which garden centers could refer their products on social media and receive a 20% portion of the sale.

“It was just really cool to see another vendor, especially all the way out in Oregon on the other side of the United States, reaching out and really looking to help garden centers in this time of need. And that’s one thing I’ve always really appreciated about this industry. It’s the community — not necessarily your immediate community — but the community of the industry as a whole,” Barnum says.