When the COVID-19 outbreak hit North America, retail stores everywhere scrambled to find ways to make sales without jeopardizing the health of their staff and customers. Shoppers started staying home, staffing became challenging and navigating the new landscape was increasingly difficult as rules and regulations on in-store shopping at IGCs continued to change.
In an effort to continue serving customers, especially with the crucial spring months fast approaching, independent garden centers began offering new options or expanding existing alternatives like accepting orders by phone and email for curbside or in-store pickup, and delivering straight to customers’ homes.
But all of those options can be extremely time-consuming for garden centers, many of which are struggling with busy phone lines and reduced staff. An online shop allows customers to browse at their leisure and make orders without the help of IGC staff, but setting up a virtual store can be expensive and take months to put together. Inputting images, descriptions and prices can take hundreds of man-hours that garden centers just don’t have right now.
To streamline that process, two companies have found new ways to help IGCs get their plants and products online on a shortened timeline in recent weeks — one by modifying an existing ordering platform for restaurants pickup and delivery, and another by leveraging an existing plant database.
Sell My Plants, a web option from True Mtn Marketing, is working with suppliers to gather images and descriptions to populate garden center websites. Garden Center Marketing’s web platform, which hit the market at about the same time in April, is offering up its online plant database, used previously for custom bench card and marketing purposes.
By bringing the garden center inventory online, they’re hoping to increase sales capacity amidst social distancing mandates, ease customer concerns and decrease physical traffic at retail stores.
Here’s how each platform is innovating and adapting to bring garden center stores online fast.
Sell My Plants
Alsip Home & Nursery had most of its inventory online before the coronavirus outbreak hit, but CEO Richard Christakes says his phone is still ringing off the hook. “I can’t imagine if we didn’t have our website,” he says. “I would be terrified.”
Seeing the huge demand for online ordering during the pandemic, Christakes, who is also co-owner of True Mtn Marketing, decided to take a platform he uses for his restaurant customers and customize it to help IGCs get their inventory online.
The system, called Order Launch, allows restaurants the ability to take food and drink orders online for pickup or delivery. “Essentially, we take a line of code and embed it into their menu, and it turns their menu into an online store,” Christakes says. The idea is that restaurants can use their own delivery drivers to avoid the high fees and potential service issues associated with other delivery services.
At the end of March, the marketing company decided to put its efforts into modifying the online ordering platform for garden centers. “That’s just kind of something on the side that we’ve been doing but it’s the same concept where we just wanted to take it and put garden centers’ plants on their websites,” Christakes says.
Customers can shop the online stores and choose between in-store pickup, curbside pickup and local delivery at the end of their transaction. Each IGC can customize delivery prices by zip code or however it chooses to tier pricing. Stores can also limit the distance they’re willing to travel for deliveries.
By partnering directly with suppliers, True Mtn Marketing started gathering up a database of plants and products to launch Sell My Plants. Proven Winners, Ball, Sun Gro, FoxFarm, Midwest Groundcovers and Bailey Nurseries’ First Editions grown at Willoway Nurseries are some of the brands on the service so far. Finding images not under copyright and compiling the data has been challenging, Christakes says, but the online catalogue is now up and running with more than 11,000 items.
There are three IGCs on board with the platform as of late April — one in Wisconsin, one in Iowa and another in Illinois — and several others have signed up for the service, Christakes says.
Each garden center populates its individual online storefront by choosing what it offers from a list of options sorted by brands, categories and product names. Those are then imported to the online shopping site. “That’s actually what takes the longest is for the garden centers themselves to actually fill out the items and put their pricing in,” Christakes says. “We have no control over that because everybody is different. But outside of that, it’s pretty quick.”
The online store is a subdomain customers can access from the garden center’s home page. Christakes says the shops can be customized to match the IGC’s colors and logos to keep branding consistent. Signing up for the platform offered by True Mtn Marketing takes just a few minutes, and from there, garden centers need to add products, pricing and other customization.
For products not in the database already, IGCs can add their own on the back end. “People make custom baskets; people make custom planters. This is a very unique industry we’re in here and everybody’s different. Everyone has strong opinions and they’re passionate. So we’re just trying to do what’s best for everybody and help them out,” Christakes says.
Sell My Plants does allow for point-of-sale integration, but that would be a much longer process. To move as quickly as possible, IGCs can simply manage inventory on the back end themselves.
“Unfortunately, point-of-sale integration is not something that is done overnight,” Christakes says, noting that there are competing services. “We could do it just as fast as them, probably for the same price. But that solution is for the big boys — I mean the really big boys. This is really for the small and medium-sized garden centers that need to be set up and they need to be set up now. They can’t afford an over $20,000 solution that also takes over six months.”
The setup fee for Sell My Plants is $895 up front with a $99 monthly charge. “We wanted to keep the price low to make it accessible to everyone,” Christakes says. “We need garden centers now more than ever and we’re just trying to help.”
In April, Garden Center Marketing announced that it had created a web solution that would allow garden centers to get their online shops set up in days using the company’s database of images and descriptions. The database, originally created to offer customizable bench cards and marketing materials, is now being used for online ordering capabilities.
The company has been building e-commerce sites for nearly 20 years, and introduced IGC QuickSite Soltuions three years ago as a way for garden centers to sell online. So, in the midst of social distancing due to fears of spreading the coronavirus, the company started working on a way for IGCs to set up online stores with options for delivery and pickup to reduce contact.
Current GCM customers who use the company’s web platform can simply work within that framework. But for those with their own existing sites, a subdomain is created. While hosted on the GCM server, the site can be customized to be consistent with the IGC’s branding. It can mirror the original site’s navigation to link back to the homepage, making it easy for customers to go back and forth between the two.
The average site takes four to five days to complete, according to the company. As of press time, GCM had six garden centers on board with the platform. The setup fee for the online marketplace is $1,990 with a monthly payment of $190.
Any plants or products not in the database of roughly 21,000 items can be added manually with images and descriptions from garden center staff. The real goal was to make plants available online for garden centers when they need it most, says President Timothy Howard.
“If you have your bag of soil that you have in July, you can still sell it. Those calibrachoa that you’ve got right now, you’re not selling in July. So I was really trying to get something out here that would allow our core customer base something that they can make a smaller investment in, be up and running and start selling plants,” Howard says.
The platform offers options for delivery and in-store or curbside pickup, and IGCs can edit orders based on availability. For example, if a customer orders two rose bushes and there’s only one in stock, a manager can delete the second bush from the order and the customer won’t be charged.
When a customer orders from the site and enters their credit card information, a pre-authorization is done, but the customer only pays once the IGC orders the payment to be made.
Howard says that while this is a quick solution to a problem that arose suddenly, he doesn’t see online shopping going away anytime soon. “Normal is now going to be different because people who are now buying groceries online think, ‘You know what, for a lot of this stuff, this is better than me spending my Saturday in the grocery store.’ They had never done it before. There are going to be people who have purchased other things now online that they hadn’t before and they think, ‘You know what, this works.’”
And while many garden centers will keep the appeal of the IGC experience, online shopping is likely here to stay.