It's hard to beat the convenience of shopping online, even for plants. But you might be surprised by the ways traditional garden centers and nurseries are evolving to keep your business. 

By Brian Barth
November 07, 2019

When shopping for plants these days, we are spoiled for choice. We can search online and have just about anything shipped to our door. But not long ago, the best option was spending a pleasant Saturday afternoon browsing a nearby garden center for a wide range of familiar plants, as well as more unusual ones. Over the last decade, these small businesses have had a tough time weathering the Great Recession, competition from big box stores, and most of all, the increasing prevalence of online plant vendors. All of these factors together would seem enough to spell the end of the mom-and-pop garden center—yet we’re pleasantly surprised that almost the opposite appears to be happening.

Outdoor tables and covered greenhouses at Suburban Lawn & Garden in Kansas City offer hundreds of plants for customers to choose from.
Nick Mattiuzzo at Suburban Lawn & Garden

Not that online plant sales aren’t booming. Lawn and garden sales on Amazon.com were upwards of $2 billion in 2017, a 25% increase from the previous year. Monrovia, long one of the nation’s largest wholesale suppliers of nursery plants, reported doubling their online retail sales during the same period. These giants are joined by a host of smaller businesses seeking a slice of the online nursery pie.

Data that parses independent garden center revenue separately from that of big-box retailers or online nurseries is hard to come by. But Danny Summers, the managing director of the Garden Center Group, a nationwide association of independent nurseries, sees little evidence that the rise of online plant vendors signals the demise of garden centers. Among the businesses in the Garden Center Group, plant sales are booming, and now exceed pre-recession levels. This is reflected in data for the horticulture industry at-large, which hit a pre-recession peak of around $30 billion in sales in 2007, before bottoming out at around $24 billion in 2010; by the end of 2018 it had rebounded to $35 billion.

Despite these encouraging numbers, a good many independent garden centers have closed up shop in the last decade. In addition to those that were knocked out of business by the one-two punch of big-box retailers and the recession, Summers says that depending on where you live, you may find they are continuing to close. Garden centers remain a viable business in many suburban areas, but in fast-growing metros, skyrocketing land prices make it tempting for older nursery owners to sell out to a condo developer and retire. “Yes, we've lost a lot of independent garden centers, but there are multiple reasons for that,” the veteran industry insider says. “Online sales have had a minimal impact.”

The New Nursery Experience

While e-commerce sites haven’t driven brick-and-mortar plant retailers out of business, they are certainly changing the face of the industry. In growing urban neighborhoods, for example, gardening boutiques and upscale florists often move in to fill the demand for plants, offering species geared for apartment-dwellers, rather than homeowners with large yards.

“The real question is this: How is e-commerce changing the industry overall?” Summers says. “I would suggest it's introducing a whole new customer to the joy of plants.”

The new customer he refers to is younger, health-conscious, and likes to shop online. Millennials are discovering a love for plants, and they’re dabbling in their new hobby through Instagram trends and the occasional online plant purchase—but Summers believes they eventually find their way to the nearest well-stocked garden center as their passion develops.

“The younger generation is certainly getting a lot of their plant information online, but once they get turned on to plants, they'll seek out garden centers that have more product knowledge and more of an expanded overall experience.” With apps (like GrowIt!) and trending hashtags (#plantparenthood has nearly 400,000 Instagram posts), Summers is convinced millennials are the saviors of the industry, as baby boomers move into retirement and become less active in their gardens. He can’t prove it, but he says the anecdotal evidence is strong: “Go into any garden center today and you’ll see them looking at their phones when they browse for plants. We know they're good with their thumbs with all that texting—we just want to turn them green.”

The Pros and Cons of Buying Plants Online

There are obvious limitations to online plant shopping. You don’t get to search through that batch of roses to pick out the healthiest looking one with the most flower buds—you get the one a warehouse worker grabbed and stuffed into a box. Who knows how it looked when it went into the box, but after a few days in the mail, its health and appearance will likely not have improved. And by the time you factor in shipping costs, you’ll probably have paid more than you would at a local nursery.

Wandering through the plant-lined paths of Suburban Lawn & Garden in Kansas City is a much more immersive experience for customers than picking out a plant online.
Nick Mattiuzzo at Suburban Lawn & Garden

Online nurseries definitely offer one advantage: You can find almost any species your #plantparenthood heart desires, while the inventory at your local brick-and-mortar store is inherently more limited. And when it comes to succulents and other hardy species that hold up well in shipping—and are small enough that they don’t cost a fortune to ship—ordering online is a reasonable choice. Fruiting shrubs, vines, and trees that can be mailed “bare root” during the winter dormant season—without a heavy pot of soil, they are much cheaper to ship—are another area where online options are tempting.

E-commerce may not be the end of garden centers, but it is changing how they operate. “We’re not immune, something we think about all the time,” says Matt Stueck, the owner of Suburban Lawn & Garden, a nursery founded by his father, which now has three locations in the Kansas City area. His plant business is thriving, but he says that e-commerce has had an impact on his sales of other goods, like decorative containers and garden ornaments. “We are definitely more cautious now with the non-plant items that we stock.”

And as other retail sectors have found, online shoppers are drawn to brick-and-mortar stores less for the utility of making a purchase and more for the unique shopping experience they offer. 

“You have to provide a heightened shopping experience,” Stueck says. “On weekends, we have face painting and balloon artists in our stores. In the fall, we do a pumpkin patch. We have hayrides, we have free popcorn. We have golf carts that people can ride on with their kids throughout our nursery.”

Another Kansas City shop, Family Tree Nursery, markets itself as a garden center “destination” and recently opened a coffee shop in one of its garden centers, where patrons can relax and chat amid an indoor landscape of decadent tropical foliage. Along with a hefty social media presence, Family Tree also offers gardening classes and other experiential offerings to draw customers into the store.

Brick-and-mortar plant retailers play the online game, too. A recent study found that nearly 20% of independent garden centers now engage in some form of online commerce. Stueck says that Suburban Lawn and Garden hasn’t gone so far as to start shipping their plants around the country, but Kansas City area customers can now access their inventory online or have items shipped to their door and come to the nursery to pick them up.

Shopping for plants in-person allows home gardeners to evaluate the health of each plant before choosing one to bring home.

Increasing Our Connection to Nature

Online shopping is all about convenience, but gardening is all about a physical, sensory experience with nature, which is why concerns that online nurseries will replace brick-and-mortar garden centers are likely unfounded. E-commerce commentator Victoria Pavlova put it this way in a recent Forbes article: “For a lot of young professionals, caring for a garden is a way to relax and reconnect. Particularly for those who do a lot of computer-based work, plants offer a way to switch off.” She continues, “There is a lot to be said for supporting a local independent garden center, where available. The trouble that a lot of urban professionals run into when first looking to build a plant collection is the lack of nearby, convenient physical retail options.” 

If anything, the Internet Age actually may be spurring demand for the essential product that garden centers offer: an outdoor lifestyle. And one way or another, it seems people will find their way to horticultural bliss.

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