Now that spring has arrived across most of the U.S., and customers are heading to the store (and the keyboard) to celebrate, it’s a great time to take a look at your online presence and make sure the welcome mat is laid out and inviting.
To learn the best techniques, we interviewed two of DoLeaf’s premier sellers, Jeffrey of Studley’s Florist and Garden Center, and Hedy of Green Sunshine. They gave us a glimpse into what it takes to run a great online mail-order nursery.
1) How do you get your online store ready for a new season and new potential buyers?
Jeffrey: This is my first spring selling on DoLeaf and my biggest concern was my inventory. In early march, I did a thorough inventory of plants I would have available and made sure the quantities were accurately reflected online. That way I wouldn’t oversell an item. This time of year we do a lot of repotting, so many small, shippable plants are bumped up to larger sizes to grow on. I also tied up some loose ends and added a few new plants to my offerings. I had to take some pictures and write descriptions for the new plants. I am also getting in lots of new plant material this time of year. I am excited about a new line of succulents I just got in. Several new echeverias, a delosperma, a crassula and a sedum were all in the mix. I will be adding them as soon as they are ready.
Hedy: I don’t have any special efforts for the new year’s sale. I consider each and every week as the most important. The beginning of the year always poses lots of challenges. Some of the plants went dormant, some got some cold damage. I can’t ship to northern addresses until the weather turns warm enough for the plants to survive the shipping.
During the whole year I try to find new plants for the inventory. I make it a point to sell a few plants that I didn’t have before. Sometimes I pick up a plant that didn’t sell well earlier and give it another chance. I did have good sales of long forgotten plants that I tried again. Plants are like fashion – but as in fashion, you can recycle old ideas.
2) What is the most crucial step in running an effective online store for your garden center?
Jeffrey:Partnering with DoLeaf has allowed me to hand over the marketing of the site to them. That makes my biggest concern pleasing customers with quality plants, something I am used to doing anyway. However, running an online store is very different than managing a retail operation. My biggest challenges have been maintaining proper inventories and quantities online and packaging material properly. The most crucial step in running an effective online store has been to ensure that shipping plants to online customers fits in with our existing business structure and how we get work done. Since we are a florist, we’ve an excellent POS system, a greenhouse with a knowledgeable staff, and a delivery driver who can run packages to the Post Office.
Hedy: The only important thing is to keep the customers happy. They will be, if the plants are a decent size (I don’t sell anything that doesn’t deserve at least a 4″ pot), and the survival rate of the plants is high (my plants are not pushed with extra fertilizer, hormones and other chemicals for picture perfect appearance or fast growth). If the customer writes, I do have to answer within 24 hours. And I am not frugal with words. The customers know that I try to give a thought through answer for his/her particular situation.
Keep your overhead to the minimum. If you get a bad selling season, like the last year was for me, the plants grow only bigger and better. No rent, no salaries – this is practically a backyard nursery. When the customers start to shop again, you are ready.
3) What are some tips on marketing your store and your items to online gardeners?
Jeffrey:I think the most important thing is to be clear to my customers about what they are buying. I strive for great photos that accurately show the plant, a pithy description which includes general care as well as some suggested uses for my plants. I also try to be clear about the plant’s size. I also try to be very reasonably priced.
Hedy: For me the cheapest and most reliable marketing always has been the word of mouth. Happy customers will eventually bring more customers.
Do not expect your business to expand overnight. It takes time to establish a solid good reputation (while mishaps can come any time.) A good feedback system of course helps.
When I post a listing of a plant, I try to get a good picture, possibly my own, not one of those that are all over the internet. A not too professional picture of yours is always better than the ones provided by some vendors, or snatched from the Internet. I try to give a nice and somewhat enthusiastic description. To tell something interesting, not well known about the plant seems to be a good idea.
4) You’ve been shipping plants for awhile now, could you give some advice to newer sellers about shipping plants?
Hedy: My totally favorite topics: Shipping and packaging. There is no excuse for bad packaging. As a mail-order nursery, this makes or brakes your business. In my practice the bare root plants still have some soil around the roots for protection, and are wrapped in moist towel (not just paper towel, but the so called shop towels, that are sold at Home Depot and similar places.) Than the root ball or the pot is secured in plastic bag. Both the potted and bare root plants are wrapped individually in corrugated paper, that gives a fairly good insulation and a good protection against braking or other physical damage. If you recycle paper boxes, it is more acceptable than to have the plants arrive damaged.
Jeffrey: I ship my plants via USPS Priority Mail. I have had only a handful of shipping related concerns, unfortunately, most have been in the past 2 weeks, so I currently feel like a shipping failure. Priority Mail provides very fast service (2-3 days in the continental US), free shipping boxes I can pick up at the PO, and an easily calculable shipping charge. Also, despite all my best wrapping, coddling, foam peanuting and taping, my plants will get damaged in shipping from time to time. My best advice to new sellers would be to take every precaution in wrapping plants, and expect to have to replace some now and again due to factors beyond your control. Also, ship quickly! Often, I have a plant in the mail within an hour or two of the order being received at my shop. That means the plant isn’t in a box longer than it has to be and customers are “Wowed” by fast shipping.
5) Every season it seems there are lists and lists of big gardening trends. Have you noticed any trends among your buyers that have influenced your selection?
Jeffrey:I think that selling plants online defies trends. I can notice local trends easily through contact with my walk-in customers. Trends tend to be regional. Last week I shipped Ohio, New York, Kansas, Wyoming, Florida and Massachusetts. It never fails to boggle my mind what I ship where. Why am I shipping plants to Florida that I just bought as little babies from Florida a few months ago? So far, selling plants online has not been a large enough source of revenue for it to dictate what plants I carry. I will continue to grow a large assortment of foliage plants since I can use them in my florist business. However, I will always carry coffee plants since it has been my number one online seller. I have found that accurately listing a large variety of plants will attract someone’s attention on the internet. Once they find one plant, they may add two or three to their order.
Hedy: Forget about trends. If you can bring in something from the new trend, it is good, if not, it is just as good. There are sometimes very popular plants. I guarantee, that all other nurseries will push the same plant. If you create your own trend, your customers will stay with you. You can’t ignore the customers’ wishes, but a small nursery can’t order all the fashionable plants that will sell this season, and next year there is something else. Most of the plant I buy, I keep selling for several seasons. It is so much better to have a few plants for which you are the only source. (Most likely you have to get some seeds and grow them yourself.)
This is pretty much my entire business model. I treat the plants as my personal collection. Somehow the customers can sense that I do this because I love my plants – the profit is incidental.
Jeffrey and Hedy are ready for spring, and it sounds like they’re ready for pretty much anything. How about you?