COVID-19 appeared to deliver crushing blow to Davronda Nurseries in Langley when wholesale orders for spring seedlings filling its greenhouses were suddenly cancelled.
“We couldn’t absorb those losses,” said the owner, Lawrence Jansen. He said he was worried about losing his business when the coronavirus hit.
Milner Gardens, the company’s small retail store, last year accounted for only three per cent of Davronda sales. Most of its stock — vegetable and flower bedding plants and hanging baskets — was earmarked for garden centres at big box retailers, the bulk of Davronda’s wholesale business.
He hired extra staff, mostly high school students, to fill online delivery and pickup orders, but that would have still accounted for only between 20 to 50 per cent of the stock.
“We had to find a way to get it to our customers,” said Jansen.
Jansen talked to Ryan Moreno, CEO of Joseph Richard Group, who operates a number of restaurants, including the Townhall pub restaurants, businesses that had been closed by the pandemic.
The two, who had previously collaborated on the Glow Garden events at the nursery, came up with an idea of selling plants at pop-up shops in about 10 of Moreno’s restaurants’ empty parking lots.
“For us, it’s great,” said Moreno, who said he was able to offer some of his restaurant staff jobs. “And it’s great to see some of our customers back.”
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said. “If you would have told me two weeks ago that I would be selling plants, I would have said you’re crazy. It’s awesome that the community is coming together” to adapt to the pandemic realities.
Jansen said he’s selling the plants at wholesale prices and demand’s been great, although he said it was too early to predict how much of his usual business could be salvaged.
Garden centres, deemed essential services, are adapting to a changing retail landscape in the industry’s three busiest months of their year, the revenue from which carries it for the rest of the year.
The Gardenworks chain closed down for a couple of weeks and switched to online orders for delivery and pick up. Its website was hit with hundreds of orders a day.
“That was really so successful, it overwhelmed us,” said president Leanne Johnson. “It’s really demanding, labour-wise. It’s very slow.”
Still, the company projected the online model would have only produced 10 per cent of sales compared to previous years.
The chain is now limiting its online order system to seniors and front-line workers and has reopened its retail outlets. It is capping the number of shoppers and has widened aisles and added signs, arrows and monitors to ensure shoppers observe physical distancing.
On Thursday at the Lougheed Highway store, customers lined up for an hour to get into the store.
“People are really responding well and they are so grateful that we’re open,” she said.
“Our projections look more optimistic,” she said. “Demand over the last week has been encouraging.”
She predicts enough supply to meet demand, though shoppers may not be able to find the same variety of plants they are used to because “growers were a little spooked” and altered their stock.
Farmer Ron Hung of Bob’s Garden in Richmond said he was uncertain a month ago if he would be able to open his small retail store.
He planted only two-thirds of what he normally grows, but he’s feeling a bit more optimistic now because he has been getting lots of calls from customers. He is reopening soon with reduced hours, wholesale prices and more space in the store.
“Making money this year isn’t too much of a concern,” said Hung. “We are hoping just to be able to sell what we have.”
The demand is there and Johnson said there has been an increased interest in vegetable bedding plants as people choose to grow their own food.
“People have reconnected with their gardens and pace of life has slowed and they’re finding joy again,” she said