Expectations & Plans for 2021

5 Perspectives on the Year Ahead for Horticulture Businesses

Will the green industry experience brisk sales in 2021? How can we prepare for it?

What issues are we expecting to encounter with product availability, labor or deliveries and ordering?

How can we take what was learned in 2020 to help us succeed in the next year?

Leaders from five Colorado Nursery & Greenhouse Association member companies provide insights on what they are expecting and how they plan to approach business in 2021.

Highlands Garden Center
Centennial, Colo.

Patrick Mertz, Garden Center Manager

2020 was an absurdly busy and profitable year, but also came with many challenges and difficulties. For all our success, we had many failures, too. A lot of plans and projects were thrown out the window or put way on the backburner when COVID-19 hit. We had to construct a new way of checking people out at the registers and adjust shopping aisles and displays for a safer shopping experience. We also had to establish and maintain a COVID-friendly work environment for our employees. We were all worn out by June, but somehow stuck together and pulled through.

For all the difficult times, there were bright spots. We did see plenty of a new customers and first-time gardeners come through the door. We were also grateful to remain open during the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine we’ll see a repeat of last year’s sales, but you never know.

A lot of our plant buying has already taken place. We’ve taken advantage of prebooking plant material for a number of years now, so that won’t change going forward.  It’s really been a great way to ensure having plants here when we need them.

It’s also been helpful for us to work with a number of reliable growers, many of which are local. They do a great job of communicating where shortages might be and offer options for substituting, if necessary. Under the circumstances, I feel our local grower partners really rose to the challenge last year by getting product to us with minimal delay.

Much of our hard good purchasing is handled in the same manner as our plants. We’re fortunate to have the space to house a lot of inventory, so bringing in heavier volumes of core product lines like soils, fertilizer and pottery isn’t a burden, as long as the payment terms are friendly.

We will continue to offer curbside pick up for the foreseeable future. We are also kickstarting a new online ordering platform that we will roll out this spring. We’ve always taken phone orders, but last year was something altogether different. We were ill prepared for the sheer volume of phone orders and the manpower required to put those orders together. Devoting more people to the cause wasn’t always the best response, because not everyone knew our inventory. The hope is our new online ordering system will alleviate some of the pressure on our phone-order people, and give our customers a more detailed view of all the products we carry, while streamlining how they purchase from us.

Highlands Garden Center
Highlands Garden Center

Even prior to COVID-19, finding prospective employees was difficult. We’ve still been able to hold in-person interviews, while following COVID-19 protocols. We have used all the major job posting sites, with occasional success. We’ve had some luck converting longtime customers into employees, and through the winter, will carry a heavier than normal staff who are trained, battle tested and ready for spring.

2021 will be an exciting year for us. We’re opening a second location in Parker. Some key people at our current location in Centennial will assist in the opening of the new store, which is tentatively set to open in May. We expect great things from our shiny, new toy and hope to duplicate all the success we’ve had at our flagship location. We’re approaching this year with cautious optimism. Getting through it safely is first on the list.

Griffin Greenhouse Supplies
Tewksbury, Massachusetts

Bob Conner, Hard Goods Sales Representative, Rocky Mountain Region

Griffin, along with three of our suppliers, financed a national survey of 5,000 gardeners.  Based on survey results, we expect sales in 2021 to be every bit as good, if not better than in 2020. The American public has truly embraced the hobby of gardening during these difficult times.

Twenty percent of those surveyed were new gardeners in 2020. Eighty percent of new gardeners surveyed answered that they probably or absolutely plan to continue gardening in 2021.

One very positive survey result showed just over half of the 5,000 surveyed are in the 18 to 44 age range. Having those young customers, in addition to our traditional base of 45 to 65-year-old gardeners, bodes well for progressing the future of our industry.

Last year, everything sold well, especially our staple items like baskets, geraniums and potted plants. Edibles also had a big surge similar to a few years ago. We expect all those to continue to sell well; however, with landscapes becoming smaller and smaller or having no yards at all, container gardening will likely continue to increase in popularity.

We have also seen a real surge in growers producing house plants, that is just another positive sign for seasonal sales.

Most of my growers are increasing their production slightly from what they produced last year but are being cautiously optimistic. Production quantities are increasing but at an intelligent, reasonable and logical pace.

I would encourage independent garden centers to continue or increase their public educational offerings. The key to gardening is end user success, the more success the general public has, the more they will continue to participate in the hobby of gardening as our industry survey indicated

The possibility of product shortages is definitely there. We are seeing some tight availability for grower materials, particularly for products coming from overseas. Even domestically, there’s been a slowdown in manufacturing processes and transportation seems to be slower, especially from Canada and Asia. The better organized a company can be and the better they can make changes on the fly, the better off they will be this season. Trying to fill last-minute needs could be a real challenge with growing supplies. Companies may have to be flexible to handle the varying availabilities. How and when they source alternatives to products with limited availability will depend on each individual grower’s market and customer needs. Some businesses may have more challenges due to their operational structures or customer base.

Photo courtesy of Altman Plants
Photo courtesy of Altman Plants

With public health restrictions concerning COVID-19, heavy emphasis was placed on zero-contact sales, and we have been limited on who, how many and when people could be in our building. With this being an ever-evolving situation, we may have to restrict whether customers can pick up at our warehouse. That may put some additional pressure on our delivery systems. Though we offer online ordering and curbside/warehouse pick up to the wholesale side of the industry, I am encouraging people to take advantage of our delivery system. Again, the more organized and forward looking that customers are, the better we can supply what they need in a timely manner.

We are optimistic going into 2021 and will be firing on all cylinders, the public is primed for planting this season. The capacity is there to serve this market, and similar to 2020, early sales will drive the market. As the season matures, that’s when we may start to see shortages in isolated categories. Based on our research, vegetables will stay very strong and help drive customers into the garden center.

I have a very positive attitude about the whole season. The challenge of business is that it is ever changing right now. As always, we must be light on our feet and ready to pivot as necessary; every business must stay abreast of the ever-changing business environment. We have to adapt and move forward and I see that as a positive. It gives us an opportunity to reevaluate how we do business. It is easy to say this is the way we have always done it and we are profitable, but what about tomorrow? It takes time to really analyze who the customers are, what they want, and how to serve them best.

Desert Canyon Farm
Canon City, Colo.

Tammi Hartung, Co-Owner

We do feel it will be a busy year again this year, especially in the spring season; however, it may have less of a tone of hysteria as it did last spring. Taking down the tone of panic will be important, as both we as the grower and our customers as the shoppers won’t be caught off guard as much this year.

People have realized that gardening has strong benefits on many levels: growing your own food, education for children who are learning more at home with online schooling, exercise for the entire family, and mindfulness to counteract the stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 situation. We think that many public health restrictions will still be in place until well into spring and possibly well into summer. So, we need to be prepared with safety practices in place, lots of educational help for customers shopping for food plants, and a good supply of all types of plants for our customers.

We have planned well ahead in ordering seeds, as we did experience many shortages in 2020. Shortages may be an issue for those businesses that get their seed orders in late. We do most of our own growing from start to finish, so other types of expected shortages will not have a big impact on us. We are concerned about whether our wholesale customers will have shortages from their vendors and come searching for availability from us above our normal inventory offerings. That happened last year, and although it is good for the income, it made it difficult for us to manage our growing space. We plan to prioritize our retail space and hold steady on our wholesale growing space.

We are seriously hoping that we do not have to offer email ordering or curbside pick up! We are such a small operation and our crew is equally small. We are not set up for this type of retail experience. The time and labor required to offer this type of ordering and pick up for our customers was a tremendous challenge. Plus, we strongly feel that part of the experience for our customers is to pick out their own plants. It’s sort of a connection that we feel is important to the process of gardening. Only when the mandates do not allow us to have in-house shopping will we offer curbside order pick up again.

Normally, we invite our past crew back to work for the coming spring. If someone who worked previously didn’t work out or doesn’t plan to return, then we normally promote the job opening by word of mouth. We have also posted on the CNGA online job openings board. All of our positions are very seasonal and always quite part time, so it is sometimes challenging to find people who are not needing full-time, permanent work and can handle the physical requirements of the work here on the farm. We have offered internships in the past and that has worked well.

Desert Canyon Farm Open Farm Days
Desert Canyon Farm Open Farm Days

Social distancing at work is challenging, but we have managed to accomplish that. The greater challenge is mask wearing all day in the retail greenhouses, which get quite warm if the weather is nice. But again, everyone has been excellent at complying with that requirement.

In normal years, we have always offered classes as an educational opportunity for our customers, and in 2020, we could not do that and people missed it terribly. We are putting together other ways to share growing and usage information about the plants we sell, so that customers have more guidance as they approach gardening and growing the plants that we offer.

We plan to be well stocked with plants, but we will not go overboard with inventory, as the 2020 season proved to us that business can be precarious week to week, even day to day, during a pandemic. We want to have plenty of plants available for people to buy, but if something goes wrong and we are not allowed to be open for a period of time, we do not want to have too much inventory that might go bad and have to be composted. We do expect the 2021 business year to be challenging, as it was last year, but also expect it to be a good business year as people are appreciating gardening more and like the security and stability of growing their own food.

Arbor Valley Wholesale Nursery
Brighton, Fort Collins, Franktown and Denver, Colo.

Sales Director Mike Schleining, Purchasing Manager Matt Ruud, Sales Associate Jenna Berg, Sales Manager Jason Schimmel, Branch General Manager Brandon Harris

We expect 2021 to be equally if not more crazy than 2020, judging by the quotes we’re getting. The pace of business even in fall 2020 set records. With COVID-19 restrictions, garden centers were very busy last year and we don’t expect to see significant changes.

For wholesale businesses, we are expecting the same sales volume; some of that is weather dependent. While we have nice, dry weather, landscape contractors will continue to work. If we are headed toward a severe drought that could become an issue; historically triggering water restrictions may cause problems for retail and wholesale sales.

From the purchasing standpoint, Arbor Valley is grabbing everything it can that makes sense for us to grab, in anticipation of having a good year. With all the growth that we have had on the Front Range, and continued strength in permitting and landscape architecture and design, we expect 2021 to be similar to 2020. Do we expect the same massive year-to-year jump like 2019 to 2020? No, but 2021 should be a solid year going forward.

We do expect some shortages though we are trying to stock enough inventory to avoid that. The initial shortage will be on evergreens. Certainly the larger sizes will run out at some point in the season. We see the deciduous trees and small trees market recovering, and overall, the market is in better shape with those.

If we do need to help customers find alternatives and substitutes, we have developed relationships over the years with landscapers and garden centers, so they trust us to find the right plant to fill voids in their designs and displays. We call our process: plant purchasing simplified. We are a one-stop shop for everything green.

Nurseries work closely with the landscapers to have them give us jobs or purchase orders as early as possible so we have the time needed to find the plants. If we find them locally, it’s quick, but if we have to go out of state, we need a week or two. If a customer has a job going in in a month, they can be confident we have what they need when they need it.

We haven’t had problems with social distancing with our customers. Being mostly wholesale, most of our business communication is emailing or calling to set up orders, and most orders get delivered. We have teams to load for customers so they never have to leave their vehicles. By the time they get here, we know what their order is and can load it quickly.

We are adding salespeople to be able to handle the volume and better communicate with our customers. We are also doing new training programs for our staff and landscape contractors, on how to plant trees and other topics to help them be successful, especially with the volume of plants being planted.

Altman Plants
Photo courtesy of Altman Plants

Our biggest issue is finding people to fuel the business growth coming down the line. Job fairs have not been happening or they have been going virtual, but we haven’t tried those online. We have advertised positions on social media, and also found people through word of mouth across the industry including the nursery, greenhouse and landscaping sides.

We have been fortunate during this time of COVID. We are still hiring where other industries may be laying off. Though we are not attending university job fairs, we still have connections with students and teachers up at Colorado State University, and we just interviewed three graduates.

Our industry is growing due to people spending more time at home and spending money to make their yards better, as well as the strong construction business with new warehouses, streetscapes and shopping malls that have to be landscaped. Meanwhile, other industries have been hit pretty hard by the public health restrictions, and a lot of people are looking for work. It has opened up opportunities for us to fill positions with employees from other industries. We are excited about 2021.

Atlman Plants
Vista, California

Bobby Steinlein, General Manager

We expect very strong market demand. We had our sales and production plan in earlier than ever. Purchase orders for the first half of the year were complete by November. Also before 2020 ended, we had hired and were continuing to hire key roles for growth, and were finalizing resourcing plans.

We do not wait until spring to staff. We are always hiring. We use H2A employees, which account for about half of our workforce, for the peak period. As our sales continue, we continue to develop and hire key personnel, using Linkedin, HortJobs, and Handshake to find candidates.

In managing availability opportunities, we review what products could be long on inventory at one of our out-of-state facilities on a weekly basis. We also have great relations with growers in and outside of Colorado. If the market is stronger earlier than anticipated, we can react and plant more.

We approach the 2021 season equally with optimism for strong sales and with care for our employees to keep them healthy.