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The damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic is real, far-reaching and yet to fully manifest for many of us. No doubt we have numerous challenges yet to face on the horizon. That said, the surge in public interest in plants and gardening products was welcomed by growers and garden centers alike in 2020. Gardening enthusiasm was a singular bright spot in a very dark landscape.

Many businesses — but not all — saw some of their biggest sales increases in years. It looks like we will potentially face another busy spring in 2021. Unfortunately, the increased demand coupled with supply chain and market volatility — not to mention labor shortages — may make it challenging for growers and retailers to meet plant demand expectations in the new year.

The biggest concerns voiced to me by my clients are how and where they will find the liners or finished plants, or larger trees and shrubs, needed to meet customer demand. Perennial plugs seem to be of particular concern. I expect the consequences of such supply squeezes to come to bear in 2021, potentially dampening the sales boost we saw in 2020. Good pre-planning, assertive marketing and overall flexibility will be required to maintain brand integrity and quality until some market stability either returns, or we all adjust to a new “normal.” The trick is to maintain your brand reputation despite potential volatility.

Transparency

My advice to clients wondering how to prepare for supply challenges is to be upfront with your customers and quickly pivot to provide available alternatives. If you know you are either not going to be able to grow and stock a particular crop — or will only have limited quantities — be transparent about it early on. Truth in advertising is going to be very important with plant supply chains strained.

Book early

If you have not been taking pre-bookings or typically only allow for buying on availability, now would be a good time to consider a pre-season booking or pre-paid order strategy. Consider creating incentives for customers to pre-book or reserve items that will be in limited supply. This is one way to help your top customers feel confident they will have what they need to keep their business flowing this spring. It will also help them adjust and plan their own marketing; and reinforce your brand loyalty.

Market alternatives

Once you have gotten the hard truths out of the way, spend extra time and effort marketing what you will have. Customers will want to quickly move on from the negative to the positives and what you can do to help them keep their business flowing as seamlessly as possible.

Pre-selling your product will also help you more quickly pivot your seasonal marketing to promote remaining available items you can offer as alternatives. This will be especially helpful to landscapers who may need to change up standard color and perennial installations and will need quick access to suggested substitutions.

Price points

Increase your prices but take care not to gouge. Supply and demand can certainly drive the market and there is no reason you should not improve your margins and profit on high-demand items. But resist the urge to go overboard on your price increases.

Trust is a key factor in maintaining your brand integrity and customer relationships. Artificially overinflated prices can backfire, hurting both your brand and the industry.

Plant and gardening consumers are already hearing the message through the media that they should expect dramatically inflated plant pricing due supply strains. On the one hand, this is not the message we want customers to latch on to, as it could keep them from diving into as many gardening projects this spring. On the other hand, we do need consumers to become emotionally comfortable with somewhat higher plant prices as many growers are long overdue for better margins.

Consider how you will address this in any consumer-facing marketing you do, or work with your retail and landscape customers to provide better marketing messages of value.

Don’t slip

Be sure to keep an eye on quality. Limited supply and high demand may have you pushing crops out the door before they are ready or up to your normal standards. You may even feel forced to purchase plants or products you feel are substandard just to meet demand. Take care not to allow your quality to slip during this time. Again, your brand integrity relies on your customers trust in consistency and quality.

Ultimately, now is not the time to take your foot off the gas, even with potential shortages. You just may have to take a few turns off your normal route to navigate what could be both a strained and successful spring season.

This article was previously written by Leslie Halleck for our sister magazine, Greenhouse Management.

About the author: Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com