Time will tell whether the business model used by commercial enterprises during the COVID-19 pandemic will become the new normal.
Earlier this month, garden centers, nurseries and other “green industries” in Minnesota were declared essential businesses and allowed to reopen, as long as they followed pandemic mitigation practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that ensure social distancing.
Some of the measures taken by florists, landscaping and garden centers, which open earlier than most other businesses, may set the example for the way the country shops in the long term.
Waldoch Farm Garden Center in Lino Lakes and Costa Farm and Greenhouse in Grant provided some examples of how shopping will change — at least for the short term.
Doug Joyer, who owns Waldoch Farm with his mother and brother, said he normally opens on April 6. However, this year Waldoch opened April 15 with curbside and parking lot pickup for orders placed online.
“We have a big lot,” Joyer said. “It's a corn maze, it's a pumpkin patch, so it's easier to fill up the lot and have a lot of people shop from their cars.”
Along with the online format, Waldoch will also hold “drive-through container/hanging basket days,” where customers stay in their cars and point to the items they want. On April 24-25, Waldoch plans a drive-through pansy day and for the May 9-10 Mother's Day weekend, a hanging basket sale.
For more information about ordering online, visit the Waldoch website at waldochfarm.com.
Waldoch will work to assess whether people are OK with shopping online, Joyer said. “April is usually the slow time anyway, so we'll see if we and our customers can handle May with an online store.”
Joyer said he couldn't predict when the store would be open for customers to enter, but it will probably be sometime in May. It all depends on the availability of widespread CDC testing and contact tracing to help customers and staff feel more comfortable opening the store, he said. He noted that the demographic group most at risk for the virus tend to be gardeners.
The weather has to cooperate as well, Joyer said. The nighttime low temperatures will determine when Waldoch will be able to put its products outside to stock them and to spread them out for their customers to peruse.
“If online sales go well and people are comfortable with it, we'll keep the staff safe longer with continuing online sales,” Joyer said.
The shutdown period had minimal impact on a greenhouse business that was busy planting and transplanting inside. Now, the produce is ready for market.
“The plants look amazing,” Joyer said. The delay just keeps the plants and staff healthy and beautiful longer, he said.
An admonition the nation has heard often for the past month is that there is a risk of opening too soon. “If we open our doors, we might hug too many of our customers. We like to hug our customers,” Joyer said.
Karin Costa, who owns Costa Farm and Greenhouse with her husband, Ron, said their greenhouse will open April 24 with curbside pickup of orders that have been called in or emailed in. The greenhouse will remain open until the end of June — the usual closing date.
Inside the store, patrons will see signs reminding them about social distancing. Costa will adhere to CDC guidelines, especially the admonition to stay 6 feet apart. Areas will be marked, signage will be posted around the store and a limited number of shoppers will be allowed in the store at one time.
Costa staff will wear masks and gloves. Masks and a hand-washing station will be available for customers.
“The way we put out flowers may be different,” Costa added. Customers might have to choose faster and come in prepared with a list in hand, she said. In other words, impulse buying might have to wait until the end of the health emergency.
The point of sale will also be different, Costa said. Payment will take place in the parking lot or at the curbside. There will be no lines at the cash register. “Normally, we have two cash registers but now we'll have one to prevent people from congregating,” she said.
Costa said her business looks to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, the CDC and Gov. Tim Walz for guidance. “With everything we hear in the news … everyone needs to follow all the safety precautions,” she said.
For more information about Costa's offerings, prices, purchasing logistics and COVID-19 information, visit its website at costaproducefarm.com.
As for how the COVID-19 shutdown has affected her business, Costa said that so far the emergency hasn't impacted the business because the greenhouse is normally not open yet. “And we're usually not so busy right away when we open in April,” she said. “May is normally the busiest time, and we are hopeful to be busy. It's a big unknown for us.”
There is no immediate indication that the new format won't work for gardeners anxious to get out and start selecting their plants.
“As a courtesy to others, people have now become used to how to shop safely,” Costa said.