By Jeff Edwards
This will be a three-part series, in this segment we will briefly look at what I view to be the good things.
September, 2013 marks my 25th anniversary in the hobby hydroponic industry. The short story of my tenure has included 17 years as the owner of a retail garden supply and hydroponic shop in the Washington D.C., Baltimore metropolitan area, followed by 7 years operating a successful gardening and hydroponic ecommerce department for a Midwest hydroponic retail firm. Over the past year, I have segued into doing website related contract work for other firms in the industry.
A lot has changed over 25 years. Some of these changes have been good, some of them bad, and some of them have been downright ugly. I’m going to use this opportunity to share some observations regarding these changes with Grozine readers. This will be a three-part series, in this segment we will briefly look at what I view to be the good things.
In 1988, there were fewer than 50 retail stores across the United States selling hydroponic and indoor gardening supplies. There were no distributors which meant retailers had to place orders with the few individual manufacturers available to provide a decent selection of products for their growing base of customers. The internet as we know it today didn’t exist and in many cases, retailers were also the manufacturers of the products they sold. It mattered not what kind of grower you were; your hydroponic equipment purchasing options were very limited. In fact, there were significantly more U.S. states that didn’t have a grow store than those that did.
By contrast, in late 2012, according to IBISWorld ( http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/hydroponic-growing-equipment-stores.html ), an in-depth industry market research firm, there are now over 1100 hydroponic equipment retail stores in the U.S. alone with an estimated annual revenue of $543 million, who collectively employ almost 6,000 employees. Today, every state has at least one indoor garden shop, and most major metropolitan areas, even on the east coast, have multiple stores for customers to choose from. And even those who don’t yet live near a shop have endless sources for supplies via the internet.
While customers in 1988 had a choice between fewer than a dozen different hydroponic nutrient solution brands with two or three products each, consumers today literally have scores to choose from, with dozens of different formulations and supplements per brand in many cases.
The “grow lights” sold in the late 80’s were primarily poorly adapted HID streetlights and often constructed in sketchy basement environments with the help of a six-pack of beer. EB Note: Ha. ha…been there, done that! When choosing metal halide, you had the choice of a phosphorus “coated” or “uncoated” lamp, period. If you didn’t have the resources for HID lighting, your only real alternative was a regular fluorescent shop light fixture, or twenty. Today, consumers are offered a plethora of grow light technologies, most constructed in certified manufacturing environments that place a high priority on customer safety. Bulb choices abound in virtually all categories, with dozens of different color formulations, operating systems, outputs, and styles.
If you were a container grower, you basically had a choice between one of two different professional potting mixes. Today there are dozens, ranging from inert to organic to fully pre-fertilized. Giving the consumer choices is paramount to any successful industry and that is certainly the case today for the end-user of indoor and hydroponic gardening supplies.
In the early days of the industry, price wars were unheard of. If anything, retailers were doing everything they could to get manufacturers to price their products so that uninitiated potential customers wouldn’t be scared away. Of course, the economies of scale didn’t exist back then. Lights were expensive, replacement lamps were expensive, systems were expensive, and heck, most everything was expensive by today’s standards. In those days, the most fairly priced items in a hydro shop were typically the nutrients. But even they were expensive compared to mainstream fertilizers available through garden centers.
Today, thanks to a far more competitive environment and economies of scale, coupled with price pressures from international imports, the cost for an entry level hydroponic or indoor grower has decreased dramatically while their options have increased, which continues to significantly increase the interest and accessibility to hydroponic gardening.
Hydroponics hasn’t always been as universally accepted, nor understood as it is today. The retailers who ventured everything were in fact visionaries who correctly saw the future. There was no hydroponic produce in supermarkets, no hydroponic farmer’s market stands, no sustainable food movement, no internet hydroponic food forums, in fact, it was pretty much thought by mainstream society to be something that outlawgrowers utilized exclusively and for a time, they were mostly right. Of course, the undergroundgrowers were the prescient ones, a fact even recently acknowledged (www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv5epteG6Zo) (8:28) by Dylan Ratigan, a former anchor for MSNBC, who recently quit his television job to work with returning veterans by teaching them how to grow hydroponic food.
Today, however hydroponic plant and food production is fast overcoming any unseemly shadows. It’s tough to find a supermarket or farmer’s market that doesn’t offer hydroponic produce, proving that the public has accepted the concept. And that segment of the hydroponic market is growing fast as well. Again, according to IBISWorld, the hydroponic crop farming industry www.ibisworld.com/industry/hydroponic-crop-farming.html) now counts almost 3,000 hydroponic greenhouse businesses in the U.S. with over half a billion dollars in annual sales. Internet forums abound, feeding these entrepreneurial growers with support and advice. Families are farming again, only they’re doing it hydroponically in their backyards, and selling their produce locally. And as a result, they are buying supplies.
Of course, not everything that has occurred over the past quarter century has been good. In the upcoming segments, I’ll highlight what I view as some of the unfortunate changes in our industry, and then finally some of the ugliness. Stay tuned!