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Plants are in demand, but it hasn’t been easy for the stores that sell them

How one black-owned terrarium business adapted for the pandemic.

A terrarium from North Carolina’s The Zen Succulent.
The Zen Succulent Facebook

The terrariums sold by the North Carolina-based nursery The Zen Succulent are delicately cultivated in thick glass vases. In each one, there’s a patch of rich brown soil at the bottom, a few rough stones half-buried along the interior, and a sturdy collection of rugged cacti sprouting out of the core.

Megan Cain, who owns both of The Zen Succulent storefronts in Durham and Raleigh, tells me that her terrariums have long been her most popular product. But in February, as the pandemic shut down borders and threw the global supply chain into disarray, glassware was no longer being imported from China. Like so many other small business owners, she had to improvise.

And so, throughout spring, Cain sold take-home terrarium-planting kits. A nation under quarantine could still experience the joys of a plant nursery, so long as they spent the anxious days of lockdown in their kitchen, germinating their own private, indoor garden. It was one of the many ways Cain tried to keep her business afloat.

In the darkest days of Covid-19, her total revenue was down 90 percent and roadblocks were everywhere. Cain needed to find new sources for her raw materials on the east coast, she built an online ordering system from scratch, and took notes from other retailers to determine her own socially-distanced curbside pickup policy. Both of her stores are open again, but only for three dates a week, 15 hours total. Full capacity, it seems, remains a ways off.

In the meantime, her community is grateful to have their neighborhood nursery back. In 2020, many Americans are buying their first plant, and that has introduced The Zen Succulent to a slew of new customers. It’s therapeutic, explains Cain, to keep a plant safe and healthy while we attempt to do the same for ourselves. We talked about that, as well as what it was like to pivot the nursery’s business model to DIY instructionals, and how a lifetime’s worth of cleaning up dirt helped prepare her for this moment.

When did the pandemic become a reality for your business?

It hit home for us when we realized that our glass suppliers were not getting what they needed. When we realized the supply chain was disrupted, because a lot of the glassware as wholesale might come from China, it was like, “Oh my gosh.” Our whole business is built on making terrariums for people to give as gifts and ship throughout the country, so without glass we were dead in the water.

We shut down our storefronts voluntarily in mid-March. That’s when we were wondering if students were going back to school or not. It was for the safety of our staff and the community. As much as we love plants, they aren’t essential. We were down 90 percent in sales during that time. We didn’t have a large online presence, we didn’t have an e-commerce system. We didn’t have a delivery system. Because why would we need those things when we had a storefront?

So you were being affected by the pandemic as far back as February and January with the supply chain, which is about a month before it was on the radar for most Americans.

Covid was definitely more on our radar. We’re not doing a finished product. We don’t purchase items at wholesale prices and sell it to the customer. We’re getting the plants from nurseries, arranging them, and offering our own product. It was tough.

Has your glass supply rebounded?

It has, and that’s been because we continue to work with our community. We’re purchasing from people who are on the east coast. We made a callout to a small business that specializes in everything from Christmas trees to ribbons for wreaths. We’ve been purchasing from them, which means that they have a steady supply and that we have a steady supply. I’m very fortunate for that.

How hard was it to get your online ordering system up and running from scratch?

To be completely honest, it was a tough stretch. When you’re planting greenery, you can’t just show one picture of what it would look like, because every plant is different and unique. We had to go back to our roots. We started as an online Etsy shop in 2012, so I had to use the knowledge I cultivated back then, and polish up our website. We took the glossy images we use on our Instagram and added them to the site. We looked at what the larger stores were doing and took their cues. I did hours and hours of research on, like, “How did Best Buy perfect their curbside pickup?” On a shoestring budget, I’m going to use that free knowledge.

In the early part of the pandemic, a lot of people were picking up new hobbies. Did you notice that at all with your business? Did you notice an uptick in people putting together their first terrarium?

People were looking to do things with their hands, or keep their kids busy. We started virtual workshops, for people who wanted to do something new safely. When you’re working with live greenery, you can see that plant grow. Hopefully in the future you’ll be able to see that plant thriving, you can say, “This is something I made in the pandemic and it’s thriving, just like how I’m thriving now.”

Did your employees voice any anxieties about going back to work? How did you address those?

We have a small staff at each of our stores. It was myself and three others. Since we reopened we brought on some more to help with that transition. We wanted to stay transparent the whole time. Some of the anxieties are centered on how small our stores are. 750 square feet in one, 600 square feet in the other.

So they wanted to make sure that people weren’t going to be on top of them at work. So we installed plexiglass to help keep them insulated. Another thing is that before Covid, we were open for eight hours a day. That was an issue, because sometimes customers will walk in because they have nothing else to do. That’s why we’ve kept these limited hours—three days a week, five hours each.

What were some of the unique challenges a plant store had to face during this time, that didn’t affect other businesses?

We deal with dirt, so we’re cleaning all the time in general. But a big stake of our business was a DIY terrarium bar, where customers would come in, sit down, and make a terrarium with us and leave with that design. That’s another thing our workers weren’t comfortable with, so we stopped that. We didn’t want multiple people using the same tools to make terrariums day in and day out.

One of the things you guys started selling after the shutdown were DIY, take-home terrarium kits. When you were brainstorming ways to keep money coming into the business while the doors were closed, how did you come up with that idea?

You know when you look at the fridge to see what you have before you make a dish? It was kind of like that. I looked at our backstock, and saw that we had a certain amount of glassware, a certain number of plants. We had instructions — I wrote a book called Modern Terrarium Studios — so I know how to lay out the details on how to make a terrarium efficiently. So I was trying to put those ingredients together.

Also, we have a large Instagram following, so I was able to query those followers to see if they’d be interested in a product like that before I put hours and money into getting it off the ground. They said they loved the idea, and away we went.

Do you think the reopenings of your plant stores added a sense of normalcy to the community?

A lot of people who come into a store looking for greenery want something for their home. But in the pandemic, people are looking for something that gives them life. Something to care for, and maintain, and see that growth. I can’t tell you how many people bought their first plant from us during this time, because everything else is so bleak on television. Just to be able to say, “It survived, and so can I.”

During the protests over the summer, there was a real push to support Black-owned businesses. Did you experience an uptick in commerce during that time?

Yes for sure. We’re very lucky. I’m a local girl from the community, so people supported us early on anyway. But with the Black Lives Matter movement, there was so much unrest throughout our city and the nation, that we had people reaching out to us, trying to figure out what they can do to help us. That helped us continue to move our business forward.