Sharanya Sridhar, 27, and Surya Balakrishnan, 33, are two millennials leading very different lives. The first runs a vegan bakery from her home in Hyderabad, while the other is a filmmaker in Mumbai.
What unites them is their zeal to deck up their homes with a variety of plants. But unlike their previous generations that would hit the nearest nursery to source shrubs, these two are likely to browse for plants online. Both constantly track the Instagram account of Nurserylive, a Pune-based online nursery with more than 52,000 followers.
Nandu Singh, the cofounder of Nurserylive, says that over 60% of his site’s one million registered users belong to the same demographic group as Sharanya and Surya — the 23- to 38-year-olds — popularly bracketed as the millennials.
This age group, especially in metros, is transforming the face of the largely unorganised plant nursery business, by changing how and why plants are bought. They see plants as a part of home decor, as a gifting item or even an emotional investment — like having and caring for a pet. Most of all, they don’t seem to know a lot about plants, except that it’s nice to have them around.
“Millennials are at a life stage where they are just renting a house or buying a flat, and investing in plants for their homes. It aligns with their climate change discourse and is also Instagram-worthy,” says Siddhant Bhalinge, 28, the founder of Ugaoo, another online plant nursery from Pune. “At times, it is a statement about their environmental consciousness, at other times, it is a means to relieve stress,” he adds.
Bhalinge started Ugaoo in 2015 to sell seeds. Soon, he realised millennials preferred buying plants over seeds and the startup pivoted.
In the last two years, plant sales have overtaken seed sales at Ugaoo, which clocked `11 crore in revenues last year, one-third of it coming from plants. This year, Bhalinge expects plants to contribute to half of his sales.
Most young people want to buy plants but tend to back off due lack of botanical knowledge, says Singh of Nurserylive, who at 36 is a millennial too. It has taken him a few years in the business to get the hang of different plant names himself — he set up Nurserylive with his wife in November 2014.
It is not just the plant names that throw people off. Many do not know their climbers from creepers or their succulents from saplings. “To these customers, you don’t sell plants, you sell solutions,” he says. By way of solutions, entrepreneurs have packaged plants into categories basis their utility. Some purify the air, others relieve stress or repel insects. Then there are sub-categories like plants for the bathroom, bedroom and living room.
One popular category at Nurserylive is “Top 10 plants to avoid lizards.” The platform made `9 crore in sales last year and expects to clock Rs 30 crore by the end of this financial year.
In the last five years, nearly 50 big and small online plant nurseries have come up in the country. Some, like Nurserylive, source plants from local nurseries, while most others grow nearly 100 types of plants on their own farms.
Most advertise only through Facebook and Instagram and a few, like Nurserylive, Ugaoo, myBageecha and Nurturing Green, enjoy followers in hundreds of thousands on these social media platforms.
Each one offers a unique selling point too. If Nurserylive tries to keep the prices low, Ugaoo’s plants come in self-watering pots. Nurturing Green positions plants as gift items while myBageecha provides moss frames and terrarium pots as garden decor.
All of them also want to leverage their target group’s tendency to shop for everything online. Ugaoo, for instance, follows the ecommerce model of return and replacement. It gives a three-month survival assurance for the plant or a guaranteed replacement. Nurserylive, much like music streaming apps, shows the number of plants bought underneath each plant’s picture. “It is to indicate which plants are more popular, another way to help buyers make decisions. Soon, users will be able to see which plant types are selling the most in a particular city. This will assist in decision-making since not every plant can grow well across regions,” says Singh.
Saumitra Kabra, the 31-year-old cofounder of myBageecha, uses his designing expertise to ensure the website looks appealing and uncluttered. Even the pictures on the site’s Instagram handle are meticulously photographed to capture attention. “The intent is to give consumers an enjoyable experience,” says Kabra, who left a graphic designing gig in Mumbai to move to hometown Ahmedabad to start the online nursery with his father.
Janvi Desai, 28, a brand strategist from Ahmedabad, buys into this intended experience. She follows Instagram accounts like that of Ugaoo. “I learn things and it is not even tedious. But if I want quick delivery of a plant I’ve seen online, I will go to the local mali.”
Delivery of plants bought online has its challenges and delay is just one of them. The likelihood of damage during transit is another. The startups admit customer complaints often centre around these areas of operation. “But then, many plants don’t survive even when you buy them from local nurseries,” says Anirban Mukherjee, who recently bought some plants on Nurserylive.
The Mumbai-based brand consultant, who at 48 does not count as a millennial, was surprised to know that one can buy plants online these days. “I was wary when the plant arrived in a cardboard box. But it turned out fine. Also, online players provide all the information you need on plant care,” he adds.
“The scepticism around buying plants online is fading,” says Annu Grover, founder of Nurturing Green, a Noida-based nursery. His company recently secured an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma. He also cites Amazon’s investments in the plant category in popularising the concept of buying plants online.
In 2018, the American ecommerce giant launched a separate section called Plants Store across regions. Since then, Amazon India has seen a year-on-year growth of 150% in search volumes and 100% in sales within the category, says Shalini Puchalapalli, director of category management at Amazon India.
She points to another trend. “Around 70% of customers who buy plants on amazon.in also buy baby products within the next couple of months.”
Be My Plant
Lately, plants have seeped into pop culture as well. There are 3.9 million posts on Instagram hashtagged #PlantsOfInstagram. In August 2018, Pinterest released data suggesting that plant-related searches had gone up by 97% since January that year. According to data from Facebook’s advertising vertical, over 160 million millennials have added “plants” as one of their interests on their profiles, and about 10 million of those are from India.
While there have been no credible studies to track the growth of the online plant sales market in India, existing players estimate it to be upwards of `100 crore.
“Digital is where the future of the plants business is,” says Grover, who took Nurturing Green online in 2015 to serve over 16,000 pin codes after operating in Delhi-NCR and a few neighbouring cities offline for five years.
“Last year, online contributed to onefourth of our sales. In six months, it’ll make for 45% of our sales,” he adds. His company earned Rs 12.5 crore in revenue last year.
The trend of buying plants online is certainly picking up in India, says Ranjeet Walunj, cofounder of The Sapling Project, that has been giving away saplings for free to residents in and around Mumbai since 2010. However, he rues the trend to buy plants online is stimulated by people’s inclination towards decorating their houses more than anything else. “Most don’t realise that filling your home with plants will also mean increasing carbon dioxide levels in the house at night. That’s why I push for planting earthlings outside the house instead of pots inside.”
Thankfully, at 27%, the increase in outdoor plant sales in India between 2017 and 2018 is still higher than that of indoor plant sales at 24%, according to Barometer of Trade, a data collection company. But online nurseries aren’t losing sleep over this. As Nurserylive¡¦s Singh says: “The best part about our business is that there are no haters. You either love plants or you’re a gardener.”