SIC 5261

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in selling trees, shrubs, other plants, seeds, bulbs, mulches, soil conditioners, fertilizers, pesticides, garden tools, and other garden supplies to the general public. These establishments primarily sell products purchased from others, such as plant wholesalers, but may sell some plants that they grow themselves. Establishments primarily engaged in growing trees (except Christmas trees), shrubs, other plants, seeds, and bulbs are classified in the major group for agricultural production—crops. Establishments primarily engaged in growing Christmas trees are classified in SIC 0811: Timber Tracts.

NAICS Code(s)

444220 (Nursery and Garden Centers)

453998 (All Other Miscellaneous Store Retailers (except Tobacco Stores))

444210 (Outdoor Power Equipment Stores)

Industry Snapshot

Retail nurseries and lawn and garden supply stores operate under a variety of names, in a multitude of consumer settings, and offer a wide range of products to serve a peculiarly American need to cultivate, trim, embellish, and control a small plot of greenery. The robustness of a homeowner's front lawn and the pleasing visual effect provided by planted shrubs and flowers has become a status symbol in a modern industrialized society of property owners. Explaining the consumer-appeal of gardening, Seattle-based Swanson's Nursery owner Wally Kerwin said, "Planting is therapeutic, environmentally sound and increases the value of the home … And it's counter-technical. Virtual gardening is not really an in thing." Thus, gardening did not compete against the technological revolution, but rather worked as an elixir to complement and soothe those immersed in cyberspace at work all day.

The retail nurseries, and lawn and garden supply stores consisted of 17,770 establishments in 2001, an increase from 16,459 in 2000, employing about 3,652,750 people and bringing in approximately $39.6 billion in sales in 2002. The majority of companies were small in this classification were small—employing less than five persons. In 2001, 5,586 companies had less than 5 employees; 3,189 had between 5 and 9 employees; 2,298 had between 20 and 99; 840 had between 100 and 499; and 1,905 had 500 or more employees.

Organization and Structure

Nursery and garden stores were either single-unit establishments or branches of multi-unit establishments such as Frank's Nursery. Single-unit establishments were primarily individual proprietorships, many of which concentrated on providing hard-to-find products to local or mail-order consumers, and often cultivated a variety of unique seeds and plants in-house. Multi-unit locations also situated themselves in conjunction with a larger outlet, such as Builder's Square stores alongside Kmart stores.

There are a number of professional or industry-related organizations for the nursery and garden supply business. The American Association of Nurserymen (AAN) dates back to 1875. In the late 1990s, most states had individual associations of nurserymen with member rosters that included individual owneroperators of small nurseries, growers of trees and shrubs, and plant wholesalers. They provided a multitude of small-business services to their members. The AAN's retail division is the 600-member Garden Centers of America, founded in 1972. Its stated aim is to meet the daily needs of garden center managers.

Background and Development

Retail nursery and garden supply stores have been in existence since the nineteenth century, but only in the decades following World War II did this segment of the retail economy flourish into a profitable business. To meet the postwar housing shortage, new communities filled with single-family homes grew exponentially as a result of expansion into suburban and rural areas. The availability of open acreage in the United States meant that every family could hope to own a modest plot of land surrounding their home—a front yard buffeting the home and occupants from the street, and a more private backyard for children's playtime, barbecues, and small vegetable gardens. In many of these newly created bedroom communities, a holdover from the area's more rural beginnings could be found under the awning of the local feed store. These family-owned businesses had served the needs of the area's farmers in previous decades, but with the influx of new homeowners into the community in the postwar years they soon adapted to changing demo-graphics. They began stocking items less suitable for maintaining a large tract of cropland than for keeping a small lawn. More successful businesses purchased competitors, making major lawn and garden supply retail chains common, especially in midwestern states.

The retail nursery and lawn and garden supply industry added products and services to meet changing consumer demands over the years. It stocked chlorine and other swimming-pool maintenance items as family recreational facilities multiplied in suburban backyards in the 1960s and 1970s. Retail centers began carrying less seeds and more bedding plants in the 1990s as busy two-career households found less time to cultivate a garden plot from scratch.

Retail nurseries and lawn and garden supply businesses witnessed phenomenal growth during the 1980s and 1990s. Most of this gain is due to changing demo-graphics in the United States that place more consumers in the age and income category that has traditionally spent money on gardening. The overall industry has been transformed by two important trends during this period of growth. The first is the dominance of larger, multi-unit retail chains that are usually regional in scope but often provide outlets from coast-to-coast. This shift has brought a more corporate strategy to what had for many decades been a rather localized industry. Computers to track inventory and uniformed cashiers are now common in even smaller establishments. The second major change in the industry has been the increased segmentation of the nursery market.

Smaller companies, faced with the threat of competing against well-stocked chain stores whose products were bought in volume and then sold to consumers at a discount, have found that narrowing their focus has kept them afloat in the industry. Many now specialize in a certain variety of plants, which are cultivated on the premises, or aim to capture the more environmentally conscious gardener with specialized products. Another means of coping with profit losses has been the development of a segment to provide landscaping services. The industry has also been affected by the increase of large discount lawn and garden supply departments in new warehouse-style home centers such as Builders' Square and Home Depot. Such stores offer an immense selection of standard lawn and garden products, and their entry into the market has introduced greater competition.

Homeowners in the 1990s came to view sprucing up their lawns and shrubbery as a relatively low-cost way to boost property values as well as spirits. According to some leisure-time experts, gardening became one of the most rapidly-developing hobbies among Americans in the 1990s. Not only did the larger, corporate-based retail nursery and garden-supply centers benefit from the boom of the 1980s, but small, individually owned firms also flourished. These latter establishments were able to provide specialty plants, rare seeds, and unusual implements and accessories for new legions of dedicated gardeners. Smaller enterprises often cultivated their own varieties of one certain plant, such as lilac or rose bushes, or geared themselves toward gardeners interested in producing their own fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Savvy consumers recognized the distinction in knowledge and expertise provided by these independents, who thrived by catering to the growing legion of buyers educated in the wares they were purchasing.

In 1991, the retail nursery and lawn and garden supply industry was hit by a disaster with costly repercussions. The problem stemmed from the use of a fungicide called Benlate, manufactured by the chemical giant DuPont. The pesticide had been on the market for two decades and was known by nursery growers to be a quick-acting cure for minor blighting diseases affecting fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants. However, nurseries and growers in 40 states soon began reporting problems in the spring of 1991, complaining that their plant stock was rapidly dying or failing to reach maturity. The company began investigating the disaster and months later were still baffled. Scientists speculated that unknown interactions between the chemical compounds in Benlate may have created a undetectable toxic element. They believed the culprit may have been an inert ingredient that was suddenly aggravated by greenhouse conditions. Growers began treating the diseased plants with activated charcoal, which seemed to ameliorate some of Benlate's effects, but some experts believed that the wayward chemical compound lingered in the plants. DuPont began paying millions of dollars in settlements to growers faced with bankruptcy, particularly to nurseries and growers in Florida. The scandal also raised an ethical issue among nurseries—although some owners were fully aware of the Benlate-diseased plants, they sold them anyway in an attempt to reduce some of their losses. Naturally, the plants quickly died when removed from the greenhouse setting.

In 1996, approximately 12,000 establishments operated retail nurseries and garden stores in the United States. With the exception of the large home-centers, the majority of these were small establishments, with the average employee count per establishment at about 7, compared to the average of 12 for all retail industries. The total number of employees has increased approximately 22 percent since 1990, reaching an estimated 92,000 in 1996.

The entire retail nursery and lawn and garden supply industry generated $25.9 billion in sales in 1995, according to the National Gardening Association. That represented an increase of $3.5 billion, or 15.5 percent, over the previous year. Throughout the previous five years, sales increased about 10 percent annually.

Current Conditions

The midwestern region of the United States, with its higher concentration of people who grew up on or near farmland, remains the most avid-consuming region of nursery and lawn and garden supply items. The area also boasts one of the highest rates of home ownership in the nation, and the average size of the property lot is larger than the rest of the country. The increased environmental consciousness among all consumers, but especially within the midwestern group, also positively impacted the nursery and garden supply industry. This trend is reflected in the shift toward more nature-like gardens, with an assortment of wildflowers and a less-manicured look. This transition is also evidenced by the increase in sales of organic fertilizers and the growing popularity of landscaping that appears less contrived and more natural. An example of the back-to-nature movement is seen in the use of woodland plants or prairie grasses as opposed to water-thirsty and high-maintenance trimmed lawns.

According to a survey conducted by the National Gardening Association, consumers spent an average of $466 per household, $39.6 billion total, on their lawns and gardens in 2002. That represented an increase of $30.2 billion over previous four years. Mail order or online purchases, an increasingly popular method for consumers to obtain gardening supplies, have grown to about 8.4 percent over the past few years. In fact, survey results concluded that 23.8 million consumers used mailorder to purchase their gardening supplies in 2002. The survey also concluded that 7 percent of total industry purchases were completed via mail order. Garden centers account for about 43 percent of total gardening purchases; hardware stores for 33 percent; mass merchandisers for 48 percent; feed and seed stores for 14 percent; supermarkets or drug stores for 21 percent; home centers for 52 percent; and mail order for 28 percent.

SIC 5261 Retail Nurseries, Lawn and Garden Supply Stores

Further results concluded that 50 percent of consumers who purchased their nursery, lawn, and garden supplies by mail order or online was because of its convenience. Furthermore, mail order and online shopping offered items that were not found in retail nurseries or garden centers. The favorite items were seeds, live plants, bulbs, gardening books and magazines, gardening tools, fertilizers and insect controls, seed starters, watering products, and composting supplies, and gardening gifts or decorative items. The mail order and online method of alternative shopping generated additional sales for retail suppliers.

The National Gardening Association reported total sales of $38.4 billion in 2003. In fact, the retail nurseries, lawn and garden supply stores experienced an annual growth of five percent for a consecutive three years.

Industry Leaders

One of the largest retailers of nursery plants and lawn and garden supplies is Frank's Nursery and Crafts. The company was founded in Detroit, Michigan, and in the postwar years capitalized on the area's high concentration of single-family homes in both the city and surrounding suburbs. Frank's outlets operated year-round, but switched to selling craft items such as macrame kits and artificial flowers during the lean winter months. The company has also done a brisk business as a live Christmas tree lot each December. Traditionally, Frank's Nurseries were larger than the average garden-supply store at the time and provided customers with shopping carts to traverse their many indoor and outdoor aisles. The outdoor segment, open during the temperate months, sold a variety of shrubs, bushes, vegetable plants and seedlings, and flowers to home gardeners.

The company's user-friendly, supermarket-type approach appealed to not only the serious gardener but also to the more inexperienced, easily daunted neophyte, and proved remarkably successful. In addition, its larger corporate structure allowed it to purchase supplies in volume at a discount and then warehouse and distribute them as needed. Frank's stocked not only plants and gardening tools but also patio furniture, lawn mowers, swimming pool products, and power tools.

General Host, which owned Frank's, also owned the 11-store Calloway's Nursery, Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas. In the late 1990s, Calloway's operated 16 stores in Texas that sold lawn and garden products. Calloway's, in turn, acquired Houston-based Cornelius Nurseries, the other large Texas-based retail garden center in September 1999.


The majority of employees in retail nurseries and lawn and garden centers tend to fit the profile of the average retail or service industry worker. They often have little more than a high-school education and hold jobs that pay poorly and lack benefits such as health care and pension. The firms that kept payroll records employed an estimated 92,000 workers in 1996. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the average nonsupervisory worker in the industry worked 32.4 hours per week in 1995 and earned $263.41 at $8.13 per hour. Since many of the firms are seasonal in nature, layoffs during the winter months present additional financial setbacks to workers in the field. The nursery business is unusual in that it is extremely susceptible to negativity among employees. Low wages and a lack of benefits often correspond to a general malaise among workers in any industry, but in a retail nursery it is a relatively simple matter for one person to stealthily damage thousands of dollars worth of plants, with the undetected crime resulting in severe financial losses. Workers in the industry face additional problems from the daily exposure to pesticides. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued stringent standards for acceptable pesticide levels for farm workers.

Further Reading

Butterfield, Bruce."National Association Announces Latest Results of National Gardening Survey—2003 Lawn & Garden Market Statistics." Available from .

D&B Sales & Marketing Solutions, 2003. Available from .

Mailorder Gardening Association."2002 Mailorder Gardening Association Proprietary Market Research." 1 March 2003. Available from .

Mailorder Gardening Association."Mailorder Shoppers Are Happy Gardeners" 24 February 2003. Available from .

U.S. Census Bureau. Statistics of U.S. Businesses 2001. Available from .

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