Weathering the storm: How Missouri garden centers are staying afloat during COVID-19

Published: May 4, 2020 on

Weathering the storm: How Missouri garden centers are staying afloat during COVID-19

Tammy Behm’s startup might have the perfect offering to reflect how the COVID-19 pandemic has hit small businesses like hers.

“We came up with some fun names for our gift packages, just to give people a smile,” said Behm, owner of Maypop Coffee & Garden Shop, which opened in May 2018 in Webster Groves, near St. Louis. “We have a package of succulents, and it’s called ‘Everything Succs.’”

Things aren’t quite so lighthearted when planning for the next few months, though.

With walk-in traffic wiped out and curbside pickup only bringing in a small percentage of the usual sales for most businesses this spring, many small garden centers and nurseries are struggling to find the best way forward during what’s normally their peak season.

“We’re used to dealing with weather, so we’re used to fluctuating sales,” said Lizzy Rickard, one of the family owners of Bowood Farms in St. Louis. “We’ve had to deal with droughts, late-spring freezes and floods, but this one is quite different. People can’t come in to the store to interact with us and have us give them advice on what kind of plants might work best, so it’s very challenging.”

Bowood Farms, which also operates Café Osage and Holliday, a home and gift shop, had sales figures during one week in late March that were just 20 percent of the shop’s average take for that time of year. With the café closed and hours of operation severely reduced during the pandemic, the business also has laid off 32 of its 48 employees. Rickard said.

So, what’s a small business to do to promote its summer offerings while trying to weather an unprecedented financial climate?

For starters, encouraging customers to buy gift cards. This brings in cash immediately and allows customers to take home their goods weeks or months later. Another option for small garden centers: bolstering their online presence and promoting sales that way.

Andrew King, owner of Flyleaf, which opened in St. Louis last May, said his main moneymaker had been monthly events that brought in hundreds of people to see and buy his succulents and cacti. With that off the table during the pandemic, however, King initially turned to gift cards and curbside pickup, though he plans to expand how his small business connects with customers.

“We can tell people to buy plants now and pick them up when it’s safe,” King said. “It’s important to keep on informing and promoting what we’re doing, but we’ll definitely be pushing deliveries more and more. When you see people driving by with masks on their faces, it’s safe to assume people aren’t comfortable picking things up at the curb.”

Behm and Rickard both said their businesses also offer gift cards, but they approach that strategy with some caution. Behm said offering large discounts could end up hurting the business because every dollar coming in makes a difference, while Rickard expressed concerns that given the nature of plants, customers might overwhelmingly want to pick them up during a short period.

“How to market in this situation is interesting,” Rickard said. “It’s money in now, but it’s product out all at once. We didn’t open up the café for that reason.”

While gift cards remain a solid option for small businesses, ramping up and relying on their online stores — something missing from the sites of more than a few garden centers and nurseries — seems to give the most hope for optimism.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, Maypop had an e-commerce site and a strong presence online, which Behm said already had paid off. Although she has had to close the coffee shop and cut her staff of 10 through layoffs and furloughs, Behm said her active Instagram and Facebook followers have kept Maypop engaged with customers.

“We communicate things our business is doing on social media, and a lot of people are responding,” Behm said. “We’ve been profiling artwork, and we’ve also had a musician in for a live-streaming concert.”

Ann Lipides, who owns Sugar Creek Gardens in Kirkwood, said her business has communicated changes to customers through its website, which has seen double the traffic it had a year ago. Sugar Creek lists its offerings online, with phone ordering and curbside pickup.

“We have more orders than we can process,” Lipides said in an e-mail. “We’ve furloughed our staff of 30 until it is safe to let them back in. Three of us are trying to hold the fort down.”

King, whose shop has been open for less than a year, said having a store on the shop’s website has been a big plus. It helps to save time, too.

“From the beginning, our interest has been digital-first. We wanted everything to be available and accessible online,” he said. “With thoughts of other nurseries, if I had any advice for them, it’s to go digital very, very quickly. A lot of people are taking phone calls, and going digital frees up a lot of that time they’d be spending on the phone, and it makes everything they’re selling more readily accessible.”

In early April, the remaining staff at Bowood Farms was hurriedly trying to post offerings — such as nearly 500 varieties of seeds — in its online store, which Rickard said was “very close” to launching last year.

“We wanted to do it to increase sales in general, and it’s something that we’ve been working on,” Rickard said. “We do sell a ton of seeds and people like to peruse while deciding what to buy, and that’s not something they can do in person right now.”

Beyond gift cards and an online presence, the small shops also expect special events will help to draw customers and business — even if those come later in the year than they’d like. Flyleaf, Maypop and Bowood all plan to resume events or workshops once it’s safe for customers to shop in stores again.

King said he wants to keep pushing events and also bring in more artists to add to the experience. He’s also toying with the idea of appealing more to families, and kids in particular, perhaps with something similar to a day camp.

Regardless of what the next few months bring in terms of sales and keeping business viable, the nature of gardening and working with plants give business owners hope that customers won’t go away for good.

“There’s always going to be a place, even in a depressed economy, for garden centers,” Behm said. “People like to garden and plant, maybe not such big projects like they would otherwise, but they do. I don’t think it’s bleak for the long term because there’s always going to be a need for gardening supplies.”