Tropical trendspotting: A boutique houseplant shop focuses on rare and unique plants
A background in fashion might not be commonplace in the plant retail world, but for Karli Heineman, it’s turned out to be a real advantage.
Before moving to San Diego from Los Angeles five years ago, Heineman worked in public relations and marketing for companies including the California Market Center (the fashion hub of Los Angeles), as well as various trendy restaurants and bars.
“When COVID hit, I was still in a relatively new town and found myself falling more and more into my hobby of gardening and indoor plants,” she says. “As my obsession grew, so did my desire to have unique greenery — and I quickly realized I was seeing the same merchandise in every store.”
Last year, she opened Plant Vault, a boutique appointment-only retailer selling rare and unique plants and accessories that she says was born out of a realization that she wanted to cater to a niche market of plant collectors that wanted foliage to call their own.
“I didn’t expect to be drawing on so much of my knowledge of trendspotting and contacts within the fashion industry,” she says. “There are so many different types of greenery in this world — I wanted something that everyone else didn’t have. My goal was to pick out plants that spoke to me and to have the best prices, the best service, and, on top of that, use my prior experience in the fashion industry and curate accessories to go along with the plants. Finding unique planters, unique watering bottles, gardening aprons, gardening boots — anything that’s different than all the things that you typically see in a regular gardening store.”
Heineman says when she started her houseplant hobby, she was looking for plants different from what everyone else had.
“I just went off on a search for rare plants: where are they, how to get them? And the only way to find them was from third-party sites, sight unseen, like ‘This plant is an example of the type of plant you will get’ and each plant was $300 or $500. It’s kind of a sketchy interaction — I had plants that arrived dead.
“Then I started dreaming, like — what if there was a location that you can go and shop all the rare plants?”
Heineman says she started with about 20 rare plants for sale, which sold out in a week. “I had an idea that I was onto something,” she says, so, using her trendspotting experience, she looked into what rare plants people were interested in and bought them.
“The first time I opened my door, a customer came in, and I think she spent $2,000 — and I knew I was onto something.”
From there, she started working directly with growers in Indonesia and Ecuador, and negotiating the best prices possible, because she says that’s part of what makes Plant Vault unique.
“Most of the time, if you are importing from Thailand or Ecuador, it takes weeks to get your phytosanitary certificate, and another couple weeks for shipping. And typically, by the time the plant gets to you, it’s in poor health. But I work with suppliers now that figure out what plants I want, they import them to America, and they acclimate them for me so my plants are ready to go. That’s a big barrier in the rare market industry — acclimating a plant. There are a lot of international rules on how many plants you can ship in the box and how long it takes, and so figuring out ways to work with people to really expedite the process has been extremely helpful.”
Plants in Untraditional Places
Late last year, Plant Vault began a partnership with Sedera, a trendy women’s boutique in San Diego, which brought together Heineman’s love for both fashion and plants.
“Sedera is one of the most well-known boutiques in San Diego and owner Stephanie Stock’s excellent taste in fashion, along with my own style expertise, has made us excellent partners. Additionally, I find it very rewarding to educate customers who think they don’t have a green thumb that growing plants is easy — it’s just a question of finding the perfect match for you.
“I’ve found that people want plants in nontraditional settings as well, like a women’s boutique, because people who are new to the plant world like to see a finished product. They like to see a plant styled in a pot; sometimes we put them on a beautiful macrame moss pole — just a completed project where you just grab and go.”
She says it’s also a misconception that rare plants can only be indoor houseplants, when in fact most are grown outside and can live outside in the right environment.
“For example, if you let a ‘Thai Constellation’ just grow, it can be a giant, beautiful plant in your garden; landscapers have reached out looking for special outdoors plants. Your banana, Musa, can go outside — many of these plants can go outside in the right environment.”
And for those not living in a tropical climate, the plants can be potted (or kept in pots) and brought inside during the colder months.
Open by appointment only, Heineman says she likes to give customers a VIP experience. “We offer them something to drink and they can sit down, I can show them plants, I can show how to style the plants properly — it’s complete care. I make sure all their questions are answered. And we find our customers are very happy with our service; we have, I believe, 80% customer retention.”
For customers spending “a significant amount of money,” a Plant Vault staff member will go over to their house with them and show them where to place plants for optimal lighting, as well as how to style them.
A Community Experience
Heineman attributes Plant Vault’s high customer return rate and loyalty to both their strong customer service and their community building.
“We will be there long after the sale is over,” she says. “I still have customers asking me about their plants and how to care for them throughout the season. Customer service is key in customer retention, and that is built from a like-minded community.
“You want everyone to root for each other and have reciprocal relationships that benefit everyone, plus it’s fun! I started with an online community on Instagram, San Diego Plant Friends, and also have a very active Instagram account for Plant Vault (@Plant_Vault). Additionally, I try to attend community plant events and create a circle of like-minded people.”
She encourages retailers looking to build their community to visit trade shows and speak with every exhibitor there — even those you don’t particularly see as a fit for your business.
“I always have someone in the Rolodex who can do something. A lot of those contacts were made by going to these trade shows, shaking people’s hands, giving out my business card, and then also spending a couple of minutes to ask them about themselves, making a connection.”
Best Sellers and Rising Stars
Plant Vault’s consistent best sellers are the variegated Musa (“They even produce variegated bananas,” Heineman says), monstera ‘Thai Constellation’, philodendron ‘Pink Princess’, philodendron ‘Ring of Fire’ and philodendron ‘Paraiso Verde’.
She says different variegations of the monstera deliciosa, such as the Mint and Aurea, are continuing to gain momentum and the “long-time favorites such as the monstera ‘Thai Constellation’ and monstera ‘Albo’ continue to be in high demand.”
Trendspotting at TPIE
Always a treasure trove of tropical plants, Heineman says she saw a few notable trending tropicals at the Tropical Plant International Expo (TPIE) in January. She said there were lines of people around the anthurium Renaissance ‘Tricolor’, which was voted by show attendees to be named TPIE’s Favorite New Flowering Plant; and philodendron ‘Billietiae Variegated’, which was voted TPIE’s Favorite New Foliage Plant, both from Aroid Greenhouses.
“We saw a lot of the variegated Burle Marx, which is one of my personal favorite plants, and the variegated billietiae, which won big honors at the Costa Farms booth.
“I was very surprised to not see any variegated Musa because that is one of our top-selling plants. I was really expecting to see everyone showing off their giant variegated Musas, but they are extremely difficult to grow and they are extremely scarce.”
On a more controversial — although still stunning — note were the many dyed philodendron on the trade show floor.
“We posted the ‘Blue Iced’ philodendron on our Instagram [at TPIE] and people went crazy. While it’s a ‘wow’ factor, I would imagine that it’s going to be a point of contention,” she says. “Because if you remember back a few years ago with the philodendrons ‘Pink Congo’ and ‘Pink Dark Lord’ and everyone bought the plant and loved it, but didn’t realize that it was chemically induced. I think there’s going to be a big debate coming with chemically induced plants. The average consumer just believes that this is the way a plant grows — you never assume that a plant with any other color would be chemically induced.”
Looking to the Future
The future is fashion for Heineman, when she’ll “kick Plant Vault into the next gear, doing plant fashion shows and hopefully creating a big hype, closing the road down to hold the fashion show there. And I can use all of my experience in fashion — I know how to organize fashion shows, I know how to create the looks, I know how to do all the components that are necessary to create an exciting fashion show. And where we are in San Diego, people just don’t do that. So when it does happen, I think it’s going to be really exciting.”
She says she also intends to create a stronger network within the gardening industry.
“I would love to get to meet all types of wholesalers and retailers and customers and understand better what everyone’s looking for, figuring out ways that we can work together. I would love for anyone to reach out to me if you just want to chat about rare plants, or you meet someone who’s doing something new in the industry — I believe very strongly in community and working together.”
In addition, Heineman says Plant Vault is moving into the wholesale business. She says they’ve been approached by plant wholesalers with customers looking for rare or unique plants to offer to their retailers.
“Typically, they’ll ask us, ‘What plant do you think is going to sell?’, or they give us a budget and ask, ‘What’s the best selling plant I can get at that price?’ So, again, I’m using a lot of trend forecasting.
“We see an amazing opportunity for garden retail centers to differentiate their offerings with more rare plants, so they can branch out beyond what a customer can find right down the block.”
Plant Vault can be found online at www.plantvault.com.
Karli Heineman will be featured in a short film on PlantPop, premiering on March 17. For more details, visit www.plantpop.com. Heineman can be reached at [email protected]
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