A Good Year for Gardening Mailers?

When the going gets tough, it seems, consumers get gardening. While many multichannel merchants are struggling thanks to the economic crisis, garden catalogs and Websites—particularly those selling vegetable seeds—are doing well.

Randy Schultz, spokesperson for the Mailorder Gardening Association (MGA), says owners of garden catalogs and Websites were “surprised and delighted” by an increase in sales of vegetable seeds and starter plants this year. Schultz didn’t have total figures for 2008 sales, but says members of the MGA reported that sales of vegetable seeds grew an average of more than 20% this year.

Several factors contributed to this increase, Schultz explains. For one, there’s the growing concern of food safety issues—such as the “tomato scare” of this past summer. Then there’s the hike in produce prices at the grocery store, plus an increasing desire on the part of consumers to eat more local food.

Homegrown vegetables and fruits address all of these concerns, Schultz says, “because a backyard gardener can control his or her own fertilizer and pesticide use–or choose to go completely organic—while vegetable seeds are quite inexpensive. And you can’t get more ‘local’ than food grown in your own backyard.”

The MGA predicts that the strong demand for vegetable seeds and plants will continue next year. “Those who have discovered or rediscovered the joys and benefits of growing their own food will continue to do so,” Schultz says, adding “if you’ve ever compared the taste of a homegrown tomato to a supermarket tomato, you know why.”

Many seed catalogs and Websites also report that the average size of each order is larger, he says, as customers who were already vegetable growers are increasing the sizes of their gardens to boost their harvests.

Garden catalogs begin arriving in homes during the week after Christmas “when people are typically shut indoors due to cold weather,” Schultz says. (Because many garden catalogs arrive during January, that month has officially been proclaimed National Mailorder Gardening Month by the MGA.)

Catalogs are “wish books” for gardeners, he explains, “who sit in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee and pore over the pages, turning down corners and using sticky notes to mark the plants they want to grow come springtime.”

Garden catalogs and Websites are a big industry in America. In 2009, the MGA estimates total mail order and Website sales of more than $3 billion. The average household that buys directly from catalogs or Websites will spend about $125.

“During economic slowdowns, when some families decide to postpone large purchases and expensive vacations, millions of Americans rediscover the joys of spending time in their own backyards,” Schultz says. “Sales of gardening products tend to be recession resistant, because people spend money planting gardens and sprucing up their yards.”

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