The Sill, in addition to selling plants online, also has two brick-and-mortar stores in New York City.
Photo courtesy of The Sill

A monthly subscription is the gift that keeps giving all year. From makeup and razors to food, drinks and dog toys, there are subscription boxes in every product category you can imagine. According to research from McKinsey & Company, 15 percent of online shoppers have subscribed to receive products on a recurring basis. So, could a plant of the month club work for your garden center?

The Sill, an online plant retailer with two brick-and-mortar stores in New York City, launched a monthly membership last June. For $35 a month with a three-month minimum, its Plant Parent Club initially offered monthly gifts, plus free access to online workshops and free shipping on all orders.

The program attracted more than 1,000 members within just a couple months.

“Our original intent was fostering community and creating a way for customers to feel more connected to our brand,” says Eliza Blank, founder and CEO of The Sill and Garden Center magazine Advisory Board member. “We didn’t think of it as a subscription service as much as a membership program, but we wanted to send tangible products in addition to the other perks.”

What’s in the box

Blank “considered the landscape of subscriptions” available on the market, from companies like Birchbox and HelloFresh to existing plant of the month clubs from 1-800-Flowers.com and ProPlants. That research helped establish the $35 price point, Blank says, because “that was about the value we could offer [in the box] each month, and about the maximum that our customers would be willing to pay.”

Members can select subscriptions tailored to beginners, low-light conditions or pet-friendly environments, but the contents of each month’s box is a surprise. June kicked off with pilea, while October’s box contained crotons. Some boxes might feature a trio of 4-inch plants or a 4-inch plant plus several tillandsias.

But initially, the program wasn’t positioned exclusively around plants. As the signup page on The Sill’s website explained, the monthly gift “could be a plant, a planter, or a fun tool or accessory.”

“We wanted to leave it very fluid so we could test different types of boxes,” Blank says. “It’s been a great point of research to see what our customers really want and value.”

September’s box featured a potting kit consisting of a porcelain planter, a small bag of soil and an instructional guide. “Some people loved it,” Blank says, “and some people were literally like, ‘You forgot my plants.’”

And the survey says…

To understand how customers perceived the value of their membership, The Sill surveyed Plant Parent Club members three months into the program. Of course, feedback trickled in regularly through email, social media and online reviews, but Blank says, “it’s helpful to do surveys, because otherwise you’re only getting the most polarized viewpoints.”

The survey revealed that there were two types of members: “People who were taking advantage of the perks outside the box, and people who were only interested in the box,” Blank says. “Our original thought was, ‘We’re creating additional value with free shipping and classes to round out that offering,’ but some people simply weren’t taking advantage of those value-adds, and it was important for them to feel like they were getting their money’s worth in every box.”

Eliza Blank, CEO and founder of The Sill
Photo courtesy of The Sill

[Editor’s Note: Read more about how The Sill adds value to every plant it sells in our July 2018 cover story: bit.ly/GCTheSill]

Based on this feedback, The Sill modified its program and began rolling out changes in October, separating the annual membership perks from the monthly subscription box. The annual membership will offer free shipping, 10 percent off online orders and access to online classes for $39 a year, and the $35 monthly subscription service will become a more conventional plant of the month club.

“Our customers were sensitive to the fact that they were paying $35 a month, and not every box felt like a value of $35,” Blank says.

The Sill will continue honoring both pieces of the program for existing Plant Parent Club members, while communicating these changes via email and social media.

Advice for starting a subscription box

For garden centers considering a subscription service, Blank emphasizes that flexibility and feedback are keys to keeping a monthly program relevant.

“Not being descriptive about each month’s box helped us avoid inventory pitfalls,” she says. “If we were saying in June what the December box was going to be, we’d put ourselves in a tough position if anything happened to our stock of that particular item.”

Ultimately, the success of a plant subscription service hinges on your garden center’s specific goals. Do you want to bring more people into the store, or move more products? Your unique objectives will shape the details of your program and give customers a reason to join.

“It’s a compelling way to engage customers and increase your rate of repeat purchase,” Blank says. “But the novelty has worn off, so there needs to be more of a reason behind your program than just pure novelty.”

Brooke is a freelance writer living in Cleveland and a frequent contributor to Garden Center.