Abe VanWingerden, Metrolina Greenhouses:

US: "Demand in 2022 has been more regional, more weather dependent than in 2020 and 2021"

Family-owned and operated wholesale greenhouse and ornamental plants producer Metrolina Greenhouses celebrates their 50th anniversary this year, and as icing on the cake, they won the AIPH Grower of the Year award 2022 last week, on June 14. Abe VanWingerden, co-CEO over at Metrolina Greenhouses, with U.S. operations in Huntersville, North Carolina, and York, South Carolina,  tells us more about the company's growth over the past years and how the COVID-19  pandemic, and the increase in plant popularity among new, at-home gardeners, affected their products' demand.

Abe VanWingerden. Supplying live goods to 1,400 Retail Outlets in 19 states in the United States on the East Coast, the company ships product to Lowes, Walmart, Home Depot, and Sam's Club. 

Demand in 2022: more regional and more weather dependent 
How has the demand changed over the years due to COVID? "Demand in 2022 has been more regional and more weather dependent than in 2020 and 2021. We have held onto the big gains we saw in 2020 and 2021 during COVID, and the overall industry has grown in the number of plants we sell and the number of consumers participating in gardening, which is great news. The current demand is about flat at +2% compared to last year, but that is very regional in the United States, with the South up (+5% to +6%) and the North down (-5% to -6%) due to the weather. The only thing that mitigates this a bit is that prices were up 8% to 10%, but Dollars sales up by 2% mean unit sales were down 6% or so."

The VanWingerden family. From left to right:  Art, Rose, Abe, Vickie, Michael, Helen and Thomas 

Industry holds onto growth
When asked if VanWingerden was pleased with the current state of the company and the industry, the answer was a resounding yes. "After two years of significant growth (+15% each year), it is great to see the industry hold onto that growth. Also, in an inflationary year, and with other activities getting back to pre-COVID levels, we are still seeing consumers invest in branded and higher-end gardening products as they want to ensure they are successful. We also are not seeing buying shift back to weekends only, so all of the weekday traffic we picked up in the last two years (lunchtime, after work, etc.) was still there this year. Even though it was a tougher year, I still feel good about the three-year trend lines."

Metrolina has an extensive internship program, hosting students from the U.S. and internationally every year. In the picture: interns from 2021. 

Challenges in 2022
One of the most significant challenges this year had to do with the supply chain of hard goods (pots, tags, etc.), which was difficult, to say the least. Lead times over the last three years have expanded, meaning the company has to order months in advance. However, the cultivation side of the business was more stable this year.

Another challenge, according to VanWingerden, had to do with the demand. "There was some hard work involved with the demand this year as consumers knew they had to pay more for plants. So they were a bit more careful on purchases early season and bought more products, but did so with fewer trips to the store. We needed to be more ready than ever, as they only gave us a few chances to get it right, compared to last year when we had more opportunities to do so."

New gardeners and their demand
The increase in new gardeners made the company realize they had to offer more "beginning" type sizes in their mix as the gardeners tried out this category for the first time. Most of the new gardeners have stayed in the category in 2022 as they continue to develop their gardening skillsets.

To meet the consumers' needs in this regard, Metrolina Greenhouses has their own way of testing out their products. "We do a lot of testing to assure new products are going to have the best chance for success. Beyond smaller in-store tests, we also have a 2,000-person internet survey group that looks at new items and gives us their opinion on whether they would buy them or not. This -Home Garden Panel- is critical to us, as it assures us that, when we introduce new items, they have a great chance at being popular."

What is new this year?
Despite the demand remaining at a high, VanWingerden mentions that not many new products came to the market this year. "We did not see anything new this year as I think the product pipeline of new items has been slower the last two years. But we did have success with a resurgence of decorative items in the $7 to $10 range, and we did see more use of mixes with both Foliage and Annuals together making strong combinations." 

A good summer expected
Having had their peak season from April 1st to June 15th in the Eastern United States, the company is expecting more of the same growth over the summer. "We think the 'new' consumer is not as time sensitive about when they will plant, except they seem to be more cautious early season till the last freeze dates pass. This bodes well for summer demand," says VanWingerden.

For more information:
Metrolina Greenhouses

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