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How NCNLA Members Met the Challenges of 2020

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Over the years, the North Carolina green industry has certainly seen its share of unexpected circumstances — like flooding, hurricanes and drought — but no one could have predicted that last year's biggest challenge would be a global pandemic. By late March 2020, green industry businesses were deemed essential and could remain open, despite local and state restrictions that temporarily shuttered other companies. In the face of such adversity, North Carolina Nursery & Landscape Association (NCNLA) member businesses persevered, and the year actually turned out to be one of the busiest on record.

To understand how the pandemic affected members, we conducted a survey earlier this year. Although only a small percentage of members replied, there was a recurring sentiment among the responses: Business was booming in 2020.

“Our retail sales and wholesale sales in-creased,” said Hope Ciferni, Nursery Manager at Five Oaks Nursery. “People had to stay home, so they decided to invest money in their yards.”

Unable to experience much of the outside world in person, consumers sought the help of the green industry to beautify their outdoor spaces and provide a respite from the boredom of being largely stuck at home.

“After a few months of lockdown, we had many people come to the nursery just to walk around. Parks were closed at that time, so we became a kind of field trip,” said Mark Gantt, Plant Protection Manager at Hefner‘s Nursery. “And lots of people bought something while they were here.”

Cultivating New Ways of Doing Business

During 2020, essential businesses could remain open if they followed safety protocols to protect employees and clients. The NCNLA members surveyed said they provided personal protective gear to employees, used signage to promote social distancing and modified work practices to reduce the number of employees working closely together.

Some members took business transactions outside, so they could accommodate client visits without increasing the risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus.

“We closed the office to customers and moved outside to a pop-up tent,” said Gantt.

“We are still using it now, and we may build a covered deck to replace the tent permanently.”

According to Ciferni, Five Oaks Nursery also closed their office, creating a checkout window for retail and an outdoor checkout tent for wholesale. Going forward, she said, they may not reopen the office to foot traffic.

Members also turned to technology to transform how they worked. From adding e-commerce to their websites for online ordering, to communicating with clients via telephone instead of in person, members adapted their usual work styles to help ensure that their employees and customers could continue to do business safely.

Mark Tamn, CEO and Founder of Freedom Lawns USA, said his franchise owners began using the company's mobile app to communicate with clients, provide service alerts and process payments. They also used the app to receive photos from customers to diagnose lawn and plant issues without having to visit their homes.

The app was available, but no one had really taken ad-vantage of it before COVID-19, said Tamn. The pandemic helped us realize the benefits of being able to communicate with clients and disseminate useful information without social contact.

The onset of the pandemic gave Carolina Native Nursery the push they needed to launch an e-commerce site for their wholesale buyers, according to President Bill Jones.

“We upgraded our whole website at the beginning of 2020, with the intent of being ready to launch online ordering when the time was right,” said Jones. “After the initial shutdown in March, we decided to set it in motion.”

While the e-commerce project was not completed until fall 2020, Jones is happy to have made the transition. Wholesalers now can view inventory and make purchases any time of the day and from any location, opening new avenues for doing business.

Big Demand, Big Shortages

Although last year‘s increase in demand for plant and services was a win for the industry, the rush of business did impact the 2021 supply chain, resulting in shortages and delays.

Tony Evans, District Sales Manager at Wyatt Quarles, a supply wholesaler, said delays began in February 2021. For instance, while the turnaround for supplies like nursery containers is typically three weeks, such orders were project-ed to arrive in three months.

Manufacturers are also behind on production due to closures early in 2020. When they reopened with social distancing protocols in place, fewer employees returned to work, which reduced productivity and resulted in fewer goods.

“In some cases, the products were just floating offshore on a container ship,” said Evans. “If someone on the ship had COVID-19 and needed to quarantine, the ship couldn't dock, so product deliveries were delayed.”

Dana Massey, President of Plantworks Nursery, was dis-appointed to see some of her vendors canceling or shorting supply orders early in 2021. Although some manufacturers have offered product substitutions, not having the code for a new item in their computer system, for instance, can present logistical problems in day-to-day operations.

“One of the hardest things for us is to know our customer‘s needs for large quantities of things a season in advance, so we can plan accordingly,” said Massey. “The increased demand, combined with lower supply, will continue to cause these hardships until the supply can catch up.”

Jeff Allegood, General Manager of Old Courthouse Nursery, had gaps in plant production due to the increased demand, even though they have kept production at the same level, or even higher than normal.

“The ripple effects of getting behind on production will be felt throughout the rest of the year and beyond,” said Allegood. “We have taken orders from existing and new customers for as far out as spring 2022.”

He added that factories can increase staffing levels or work overtime to catch up after delays, but plants grow at their own speed and can only increase in size over time.

Shortages, delays and higher prices are going to continue to affect businesses across the industry. While there isn't an easy solution to the problem, wholesale clients and customers are encouraged to order materials early, be flexible with what is available and expect higher costs.

Anticipating a Return to Normal

If COVID-19 cases continue to trend downward and vaccination rates increase, a return to a new type of “normal” may occur by the end of 2021. Members are looking for-ward to seeing restrictions ease.

“During the shutdowns, there were fewer options to build in-person relationships with new and existing clients,” said Leslie Herndon, President of Greenscape, Inc., and NCNLA Board President. “Zoom definitely did not replace that experience, and we can‘t wait for the opportunity to meet people in person again.”

Planning is underway to hold NCNLA‘s annual event, Green & Growin', in person next year. Last year‘s cancellation of the Marketplace was the first time in the event‘s history that members were not able to see each other face to face to kick off the new year and impending spring season.

“We are eager to return to Greensboro next January to reconnect after an unusual year,” said Herndon. “Green & Growin' has been a staple in the industry for decades because it gives people a chance to meet with friends and cultivate new relationships with colleagues. We will have a lot of catching up to do after a year like 2020!”

Appears in Spring 2021 issue of Nursery & Landscape Notes.