The definition of scalping relating to commerce is “the activity of buying things, such as theatre tickets, at the usual price and then selling them when they are difficult to get at higher prices

Let’s start with the fact that this is illegal in the United States. Not only that, but no one likes the guy who buys up 40% of the concert tickets to resell them when there aren’t any left to be sold to the general public at ten times the price.

Hello South Africa

Hello South African booming plant market. The global plant industry has seen a insane growth over the past 10 years. South Africa being slightly behind is only now experiencing the over-hyped frantic buying of indoor plants. Online plant shops are popping up a dozen a dime – when I became interested in plants in 2015, there was one branded official online plant store – Plantify. Today there are around 32 boutique online plant shops (‘boutique’ in the sense that they sell less than 100 plants a month).

Everybody is trying to make a buck with this latest craze. And I don’t blame them – in a COVID centred, economic deprived South Africa, it’s great to look for money making opportunities. However, there is a difference in being a retailer, a flipper and a scalper. And scalpers have no place in the plant community.

A retailer is someone who buys plants at a wholesale price from growers or brokers and then adds value by storing, packaging, promoting and selling the plant. A flipper is someone who buys a plant (from anywhere) and then who adds value in a number of ways, either by propagating smaller plants and a reduced sale price, or offering them to localities that wouldn’t ordinarily have access to those plants; or taking a sick plant, nurturing it to a better state and then selling it. A scalper is someone who creates an artificial supply shortage by buying up a product, which drives the price up. They are personally responsible for removing the opportunity for a consumer to buy a product. If anything they remove value from the supply chain.

The pushback against scalpers has long been happening in the U.S and it’s become a contentious issue. People who are particularly strongly involved in the community tend to be opposed to this practice whereas people on the outskirts who are just concerned about finding a plant at the right price tend to not give it anymore thought.

It became particularly topical in South Africa recently when a large chain store brought out Watermelon Peperomia at a third to a quarter of what they would usually be selling for. And then reports started to come in of people buying up the entire available stock at shops. My inbox on Facebook and Instagram was flooded with upset people who had been checking in daily at the shops only to never find stock.

Within that week, a buyer popped up on one of the local Facebook plant sale groups. Take note that the South African market for ‘rare’ plants is small. There were only around 2 growers/sellers that were selling the plants and they were DISTINCTLY different plants from what the large chain store was selling (different size + shape leaves with different soil +pots). So it wasn’t hard to spot a chain store plant.

The chain store was selling them at R160.

After the person’s post got removed by admin on the one group, THE VERY NEXT DAY, the same person then posted to another group, slightly smaller plants at a lower price. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This person had divided these Watermelon Peperomia in the coldest week and winter that South Africa has experienced this year and then was trying to sell them within the same week. Imagine being a new plant parent, spotting this ‘deal’ to only have the plant die on you within your first week of owning it – not at all due to your capabilities but because the seller was sitting with stock that they wanted to get rid of fast.

I later found out from someone who personally knew the seller that the seller had gone in to the chain store and bought up all 17 plants that were on display. I had at least 10 people from that area reaching out to me to ask where I thought they could find some. This person had not only removed the opportunity for those people to buy a sought after plant but was profiting from it.

The defences for scalping

When myself and a few others called the person out on Facebook we got a lot of pushback for ‘bullying’. Other reasoning that came across in defence of the seller:

1) “He is being an entrepreneur and is just trying to make money” – Since when has someone trying to make money made everything they do ok? His actions are unethical, he is robbing people of the opportunity of owning a hard to find plant at an affordable price. There are many ways to make money in the plant industry. You don’t have to rip people off to be successful.

2) “Chainstores are killing all of us little guys, good for him” – Ok I’ve got a lot to say on this one. Firstly, oh the irony! He supported the chain store by buying all of its stock? And then, if a chain store is putting your legitimate plant store out of business by bringing out a few sought after plants then perhaps your plant store isn’t justified in having a place in the market. Lastly if you’re a good business, having competition is not a zero sum game. The chain store selling a few thousand plants only makes the circle bigger and entices people into the plant collecting world. Not even they can keep up with the demand to satisfy ‘rare’ plant sales and so customers will inevitably look elsewhere to buy the plant.

3) “How do we know he is scalping, he could have the same supplier” – No. Large chain stores are able to purchase the rights to a plant often 3 years in advance of the plant touching the market. When a grower grows for these stores it is often under contract to not sell to other sellers for a duration of time. And as mentioned before, at that point in time it was very obvious that the plants that the scalper were selling were the chainstore’s plants and not imported or alternatively locally sourced.

Last word

As someone who loves the plant community and plants, I find it hard that we’re having to deal with people who are only in it for greed. Having a legitimate business whereby you pay taxes, have employees and are held responsible to your customers is one thing. Knocking prices up, cornering the market and then selling whilst bringing no value to the market is just not on.