After spending extended time at home in the last few years, consumers are entranced with their lawns and gardens now more than ever. According to a 2023 study from the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI), homeowners believe taking care of their lawns and gardens is just as important as regular home maintenance. A large portion of the surveyed homeowners, around 45%, also said they enjoy working outdoors and are confident about completing these types of projects.
According to the HIRI study, lawn and garden tools, equipment and supplies sales were down around $2.8 billion in 2023, but are expected to rise steadily between now and 2027. As sales in the lawn and garden category rebound, stocking your shelves with trending products and staying educated on the products you sell is crucial to keep that department blooming.
Hardware Retailing spoke with Willa Reddy, senior buyer for A Few Cool Hardware Stores, a collective of 13 locally owned Ace Hardware stores and garden centers in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. She shares her tips for cultivating a more profitable lawn and garden section and how she’s blossomed in her role procuring new and exciting products for a diverse customer group.
Stay on Top of What’s Hot
With social media providing DIY ideas and introducing customers to new hobbies, Reddy says retailers should be cognizant of trending items that customers will be coming to their stores to purchase. One example is what Reddy calls the “Instagram plant.”
“These are trendy, funky-looking plants that customers see online,” Reddy says. “Usually when you first start seeing interesting plants online the cost is very high, but we try to bring some in if we can find them. We’re always keeping an eye on what’s trending and balancing when we can bring in new, unique plants for the stores.”
Instagram plants come in all skill levels and price points. Reddy says plants that are easy to grow are popular because people just getting into the hobby want something they can learn how to take care of before moving on to a more advanced and expensive plant. In 2023, Reddy says a popular plant was the Monstera Thai constellation, a tropical, broad-leafed plant with long holes and white stripes on its leaves.
“Last year, we finally found a vendor who had it,” Reddy says. “It was pretty expensive—$85 for a four-inch pot—but at the time people were selling cuttings of it online for over $100, so that was a pretty good deal for our customers. We had customers come from as far as Connecticut and Rhode Island.”
A customer posted on social media about the store carrying the sought-after plant, which brought more customers to the store. Pricing the plant at $85 didn’t achieve the operation’s optimal profit margin for a product, but Reddy says it’s always a balance between stocking interesting items that will sell and still cover their basic costs.
“Once you start seeing those rare plants being circulated in stores like ours, you know they’re becoming more available as more people are getting cuttings and growing their own. It’s going to be easier for growers to grow them, and the price will go down,” Reddy says. “There’s a thin line when you see a plant that’s new and exciting and wanting to bring it in, and knowing that there’ll be a more affordable price in the future.”
Stocking what your customers need for day-to-day purchases is what drives most stores’ business, but being able to offer trendy products can be an extra incentive for customers to visit your store.
“We’re always trying to gauge the best time to bring in a cool, unique plant to the store,” Reddy says.
Blooming With Ideas
As you consider new ways to educate and connect with your customers, look at partnering with a local botanical garden, many of which offer a variety of free programs for residents.
One example of a botanical garden with a robust outreach program is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, which has been offering seed grants since 2008. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s seed grant program provides wildflower seeds to K-12 schools in Texas to create or maintain outdoor areas to facilitate learning on their campuses, says director of education Demekia Biscue.
Partnering with organizations like a local botanical garden to offer seed grants or other educational programs can be an excellent way to bring people into your store, educate your employees and give back to your community.
Other ways you can educate and engage customers on lawn and garden topics include organizing in-store informational sessions, sponsoring outdoor education classes and volunteering to sponsor projects at outdoor education facilities.
Expand Your Knowledge
Reddy began her career with A Few Cool Hardware Stores at Old Takoma Ace Hardware in Tacoma Park, Maryland, nearly 10 years ago. She started as a general associate, working with plants in that store’s lawn and garden department. Reddy was soon promoted to assistant manager and then assistant buyer. Once the senior buyer she worked under retired, Reddy took over that role. When Reddy started, she says YouTube was integral to her lawn and garden education. If a customer came to her with a question and she didn’t know the answer, finding a video that explained the question was useful as she learned more about the products the store carried.
“I think it helped that I started with the company taking care of plants and working in the lawn and garden department,” Reddy says. “I also tend to grow a lot of plants in my spare time.”
Reddy says following content creators who produce content in the space you’re working in is helpful, as is reading articles and attending conferences.
“Going to trade shows is an important part of the job,” Reddy says. “At trade shows you are able to meet with a variety of vendors in the lawn and garden space, plus see merchandising ideas to use in your own space.”
Joining and participating in online forums is another way to stay connected with other industry professionals, find ideas and ask a variety of questions to members with expertise in those areas. The National Gardening Association hosts a multitude of forums related to gardening and plants, with region-specific forums for those interested in contacting others in their area.
Embrace Alternative Options
You can also find success in the lawn and garden department by thinking beyond traditional products, including promoting native plants. In 2022, one in four people specifically purchased native plants, according to data from the National Gardening Survey, which was commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation in conjunction with the National Gardening Association. The number of people desiring native plants was an increase from 17% in 2020.
“There is a movement around the country of people wanting to understand native plants, embrace the concept of farm-to-table eating and know the plants in their area that will help the environment,” Reddy says.
When purchasing native wildflowers to stock at your store, check the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Database to see what flowers, shrubs and plants are native to your area. Share the plant database with your customers to educate them on what naturally grows in that area. Regardless of what alternate options you pursue, stay educated on your offerings.
“Whether you bring in the hottest plants, move toward native options or stick with traditional products, you want to know what you’re standing behind,” Reddy says. “Finding products you’re passionate about will make them easier to sell to customers because you have that passion behind the product.”