Landscapers Ready for Sales to Grow Despite Virus

CORTLAND, Ohio — A few months ago, Mark Bockelman thought his business was positioned to have a really good year.

“The economy was nice and everything was perfect,” he says.

Bockelman, the owner of Bockelman’s Landscaping and Garden Center in Cortland, placed all his plant orders in September and spent the winter readying for spring, the busy season.

“I had huge dollar amount orders and literally a week before it’s supposed to be delivered, all hell broke loose,” Bockelman says.

On March 22, Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statewide stay-at-home-order, which sent Bockelman on a frantic mission to cancel orders days before they would arrive. “You can’t eat $70,000 worth of shrubbery,” he says.

Bockelman succeeded in putting the orders on hold, only to find out a few days later that landscapers and garden centers were deemed an essential business and wouldn’t be forced to close. “Don’t you know I had to turn around and start calling my people back and getting my orders back on track,” he says. “It’s just been a whirlwind.”

That uncertainty is threatening to uproot what would typically be landscapers’ busiest time of year. Although most report business has slowed, they say it remains too early to tell if it’s because of the outbreak of COVID-19, or the northeastern Ohio weather.

“It’s a scary season for sure,” says Donna Lonardo, co-owner of Lonardo’s Greenhouse and Fresh Produce Market in Boardman.

Lonardo’s plants 90% of what it sells, she says, although what it purchases has to be ordered months in advance. As did Bockelman, Lonardo tried to put her orders on hold. “They were more than glad to cancel it but we were going to pay for it regardless. So there was no turning back,” she says.

Needing extra time to prepare, Lonardo’s pushed back its opening date to April 21, instead of its usual opening day one week before Easter.

Like other suppliers, Lonardo is hopeful money, which likely won’t be spent on cruises or eating out, will instead be spent on fixing up people’s yards. “If they’re going to be home, they want their yard to look nice,” she says.

Edward Wojciechowski, owner of Edison Landscape and Deck Lighting in Poland, says the biggest challenge for his business is how he’s going to market his products and services.

Specializing in outdoor lighting installations, Edison relies on the spring home and garden shows, which have all been canceled, to get its products before customers. “It’s definitely going to be a struggle,” he says.

Another challenge is that Edison has been deemed a non-essential business in Pennsylvania. “I’ve got emails from people saying, ‘My lights are out. I don’t feel safe.’ It’s more of a security thing,” Wojciechowski says.

While Edison is permitted to work in Ohio, Wojciechowski says only 30% of the business is local, with 70% coming from the Cleveland and Pittsburgh markets.

Meanwhile, Do-Cut Sales and Service’s regional online presence is helping the outdoor power-equipment retailer weather the storm better than most. “Online sales have skyrocketed,” says its president, Lisa Miller. “We’ll come in on a Monday morning and have 500 or 600 orders. We never had that.”

Miller says customers are still buying the usual products – mowers, trimmers and tractors – but also some less typical, mostly power generators

As soon as the lockdown orders began, Miller says a woman in Minnesota called to buy a 5,000-watt generator and have it delivered. “Some people are fearful that something could happen and we wouldn’t have power for a while,” she says.

“I think people are going to be doing a lot of gardens this year,” Bockelman says. “They’re scared of where their food is coming from or there might be a food shortage.”

Bockelman first got the idea in April, he says, when he sold more mushroom compost in a few weeks than he ever had in a whole season. “That gave me the idea that maybe we needed to back off certain flowers and bring in more vegetables,” he says.

Lonardo expects more people to take up canning. “I think people realized that kind of thing would be nice to have in your pantry,” she says.

As with every industry, landscapers have had to rethink the way they do business to keep their employees and customers safe.

Edison Lighting is following all the CDC guidelines, including temperature checks, social distancing and regular cleaning.

Wojciechowski says Edison Lighting has separated the warehouse workers from the office staff; all installers are working in separate vehicles. “We separated everyone’s tools out so each guy works out of his own vehicle. He only his own tools,” he says.

Lonardo’s added a register in the greenhouse section to reduce congestion at the registers up front. Carts are disinfected after each use and the whole store is cleaned every night after it closes, Lonardo says.

Bockelman quickly effected a new online ordering system, with pictures and information, to allow customers to buy plants for curbside pickup.

While none are exactly sure which way the wind is likely to blow, all hope the forecast will soon call for warmer weather and a more suitable climate to increase their businesses.

“A lot of people right now have the money but they’re holding off because of the unknown,” Wojciechowski says. “We’ll survive. I know we will. I’m not worried about that.”

Pictured at top: Mark and Sheri Bockelman say the pandemic created uncertainty. “You can’t eat $70,000 worth of shrubbery,” he says.