The Future Of Niche Retailing Is Building Brands Around Tribes

Millennials’ adulthoods have been defined by political decent, economic recession, and massive amounts of debt, caused by the staggering costs of higher education. My eldest, thirtysomething daughter fits that bill. And like many other of her cohorts who look to passion projects to balance their stressed lives, she chose gardening. From winter seedlings to raised planting beds she turned her urban Minneapolis backyard into a flourishing vegetable garden, growing the entire alphabet’s worth of greens.

So, it was not a complete surprise reading excerpts from a National Gardening Association’s (NGA) survey indicating that a quarter of all gardening expenditures of the $52 billion gardening industry came from millennials, despite their having less wealth than older generations. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning found that “gardening supports high emotional wellbeing, including feelings of happiness and meaningfulness.” And a 2021 survey found that gardening several times a week was associated with “higher levels of perceived wellbeing, less stress, and more physical activity.” And incidentally, it has provided me with ample amounts of basil for enough pesto to get us through the long Minnesota winters.

Capital Follows Enthusiasts

A recent article in Fast Company magazine demonstrated just how fertile this category is perceived to be, even among the most high-flying venture capitalists in our midst. The Los Angeles–based The Chernin Group (TCG) founded, by former News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin and Goldman Sachs GS alum Jesse Jacobs has spent the past decade growing digital startups built around niche communities, or “tribes.” Barstool Sports, Hello Sunshine, MeatEater, Food52, and Crunchyroll are among the brands they have helped expand well beyond media content into e-commerce, experiences, and more.

TCG has raised a new $1.2 billion fund to continue to find and back under-explored corners of Web 2.0 as it simultaneously seeks to adapt these same principles and strategies to take Web3 mainstream. And one of the first categories in their sites is the highly fragmented gardening industry, which they believe they can begin to build a great content-to-commerce business. Their research has shown that there is robust group of one hundred million consumers who spend $19 billion annually on gardening as a hobby. Luke Beatty, a TCG partner, notes “it’s a pocket of enthusiasts that’s hiding in plain sight, growing their own kale.”

Early discussions, as reported by Fast Company, suggest TCG plans to build a gardening company into a “house of brands” allowing other content creators into the founder’s infrastructure. They also anticipate extending into flower gardening and homesteading, as well as merchandise (gardening tools, apparel), TV, and physical retail.


Certainly Not the First

There have been other retail entrepreneurs who have contemplated similar endeavors. Billionaire founder of Urban Outfitters, Richard Hayne had a similar vision back in 2008 with the launch of Terrain. It was described as “a garden, home and outdoor lifestyle brand deeply rooted in nature and plant life.” At that time, my design firm had already designed a successful retail prototype in the category, and I used that as a “calling card” to arrange a meeting with Mr. Hayne, offering to do a “swat audit” of the concept and share my thoughts with him and his staff. The “free offer” was accepted, leading to a very memorable meeting with Richard Hayne.

The flagship store was built in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, and at the time they were contemplating rolling out the prototype, nationally. The over-the-top concept was breathtaking, merging house and garden to create an immersive natural experience featuring diverse native plants, planters and all-weather furniture, décor, and gifts. It differed from the run-of-the-mill garden center in that the interior and exterior of the space was more a series of rooms or scenarios that featured and cross-sold the products.

It was very much like if RH (Restoration Hardware) were to create a gardening concept, today. Educational classes, a beautiful restaurant, and well-designed private label gardening accessories were all brand extensions. The Terrain brand still exists today, online, and offline as both freestanding stores and as part of Urban Outfitters Anthropologie chain.

Like The Chernin Group endeavors and Terrain, I expect many such concepts to take root in the future. Food scarcities, sensitivities to common agricultural practices, and just plain wanting to get our hands in the soil will get many of us digging it.

The Tycoon Herald