Last spring, many people rediscovered the fun and sense of accomplishment that growing a home garden can provide. The impact of those hobby gardeners was significant. A September 2020 market forecast report from IHS Markit/Home Improvement Research Institute showed significant growth in sales of lawn and garden equipment and supplies over the course of last year, up more than 14 percent from 2019. Since these consumers’ thumbs have become a little greener, they may be looking for more opportunities to cultivate a lusher, healthier garden this spring and summer. Enter, pollinators.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are more than 4,000 species of native bees in the country, and they are the primary pollinator. While there is a lot to learn about pollinators and bees in particular—about 10 percent of bees in the U.S. have yet to be named or described—it’s easy and inexpensive to start small, for consumers and retailers.
Stripes and Starts
The beekeeping niche at Rand’s Hardware in Plymouth, New Hampshire, started somewhat on a whim, but it has developed into a consistent niche for the business. Store manager Laura Dion says she was inspired by a new product line from a vendor at her wholesaler market in fall 2015.
“I checked out the startup planograms and talked to the vendor,” Dion says. “It wasn’t that much money to get started, only a few hundred dollars for a 4-foot display. We decided to go for it because it didn’t take up much space and wasn’t too much of an initial investment.”
One component that Dion says was key to establishing and growing the beekeeping niche was the vendor’s book of state and local beekeeping groups. He gave her the contact information for her local chapter, and that initial introduction has led to nearly five years with a successful beekeeping niche.
“About half of our primary customers belong to beekeeping groups,” Dion says. “The other half are people who are interested in getting started in beekeeping.”
To help those newcomers get started, Dion says the most popular product is a readymade kit that comes with all the pieces and tools someone needs to house a hive. The store also stocks individual pieces, like single frames, which need to be replaced often, and protective equipment, like jackets and hats with veils. Beekeepers return to the store to get replacement frames often throughout the season, which Dion says starts in early spring and can go through early to late fall, depending on how warm it is that year.
Education is a key part of maintaining the niche and communicating product availability and knowledge to local beekeepers and people interested in picking up the hobby. Rand’s Hardware hosts a few seminars a year featuring members of the local beekeepers’ group who share tips and best practices.
“Our local beekeeping group was so excited to learn we had picked up these products, and they offered to do seminars here,” Dion says. “That’s the core of what they do, going into stores in the area and hosting seminars to get people interested in beekeeping.”
Because beekeeping is a seasonal hobby, the 15 to 20 SKUs Rand’s sells aren’t always front and center. In the early spring, to promote the beekeeper seminars, Dion says they set up a table with the supplies and sign up information at the front of the store. That display also gives employees an opportunity to learn more about the niche before customers come in.
“We’ve actually had one employee take up beekeeping since we launched this niche and started hosting the seminars,” Dion says. “And most of my employees know people who are involved with the beekeepers’ group, so we have a lot of connections.”
As a result, Rand’s Hardware has become a sort of go-between for people who want more information about beekeeping.
One necessary element of beekeeping that Rand’s doesn’t deal in? Bees. Because of the store’s long relationship with the beekeeping group, Dion says they often refer customers with advanced questions about caring for bees and their hives, where to get local honey and honeycomb and where to get bees themselves. The chapter also hosts its own more in-depth training program than the seminar that’s hosted at the store, so Dion is sure to refer people who are interested in extensive beekeeping.
Making that initial contact with the local beekeepers’ chapter was a crucial part of Rand’s success with this niche. Dion says the first recommendation she would make to retailers who are interested in getting started with beekeeper supplies is to find out who in their area is already active with beekeeping.
“We’ve kept the same supplies over the years because members of the group said it was the right mix to help people get started,” Dion says. “Adding this niche has grown our customer base and it’s introduced our existing customers to a new hobby. It keeps people coming back.
Master beekeeper Chuck Dailey talks bees and keeping on “Editorially Speaking.” Listen here.