The internet has infiltrated nearly every aspect of consumer lives, from correspondence between friends to in-home entertainment. But its biggest advance arguably takes place with online sales — brick-and-mortar’s bane or blessing, depending on your perspective. One thing’s certain: E-commerce options and opportunities are greater than ever before. For an insider’s perspective, we spoke with three independent garden centers: one just weeks into e-commerce, another with three seasons of experience, and a third with nearly a decade of internet sales.
THE GREENERY NURSERY AND GARDEN SHOP
For 50 years, The Greenery Nursery and Garden Shop stayed nestled between its downtown neighbors, growing as much as its surroundings allow. But earlier this summer, the full-service IGC began an expansion — not of its physical footprint, but of its digital presence — with the launch of The Greenery’s e-commerce storefront.
Online sales have been on owner Jay DeGraff’s mind for a while. “It’s just how everybody shops now. Nine o’clock at night, in their living room,” he says. But until recently, the options presented to The Greenery just weren’t the right fit.
“We were approached before, but it was selling a network of growers’ inventory,” DeGraff explains. “I would have to trust the grower was going to provide the quality people were used to receiving at my nursery.” The idea of selling stock, sight unseen, shipped directly from someone else left him a little uncomfortable. The network’s buy-in expense and potential margins just didn’t seem worth the risk.
For DeGraff, the answer came in the form of a new e-commerce and on-demand nursery delivery provider called Plantt. Much like restaurant delivery services that deliver your favorite local restaurant entrées to your door on demand, Plantt facilitates delivery of plant material instead.
DeGraff felt the e-commerce business model, designed specifically for local independent garden centers, offered a way to recreate the local community shopping experience online, expand The Greenery’s reach and enhance the local customer’s experience. The ability to move his own inventory was a major motivator in finally taking the e-commerce step.
DeGraff shares that the service provider worked closely with his staff to create a branded internet storefront that integrates with the IGC’s existing website and POS.
“The biggest challenge for a nursery is going to be making sure their inventory system meshes well. It all hinges around accurate inventory,” DeGraff says.
Online shoppers view real-time inventory and Greenery images — and DeGraff knows he can stand behind every plant that goes out the door. Almost the entire in-store inventory via the electronic storefront.
The Greenery’s expansion into e-commerce doesn’t require any added space or employees. DeGraff’s receiving staff monitor the website for orders, then pull items into a designated pickup area. That’s it. Customers can pick up purchases themselves or have Plantt handle the details, from pickup to packaging to delivery.
Customer response, across age groups, has been enthusiastic. DeGraff expects online sales will flourish as e-commerce continues to grow.
“For the independent garden center, Amazon is probably the biggest threat out there,” he says. “The demand is there. People are trained to go online. This is another tool that we have. In this changing world, if you’re any kind of progressive business, you’ve got to be doing business online.”
CHELSEA GARDEN CENTER
Two Brooklyn, NYC, New York locations
As owner of two full-service garden centers in the heart of New York City, David Protell is well versed in the physical limitations of brick-and-mortar stores. “Beautifying New York since 1984,” he’s also keenly aware of the competitive edge e-commerce offers.
Now entering his third season of online sales, Protell launched Chelsea Garden Center’s online storefront for Christmas sales in 2017. “The thought was to start small and test the waters. It’s a totally different type of business, with a totally different set of issues,” he shares.
Protell uses Shopify, a popular and proven e-commerce platform that allows website owners to easily add online shopping, payment services and related features to their sites. Beyond the online interface, Chelsea staff handle everything — from online inventory management, via the software’s back-end features, to delivery.
Three years in, response has been very favorable. Yet Protell maintains what he calls a “very measured, practical approach.”
Purposely designed as a very small component of his business, Chelsea’s online sales are limited to houseplants, sleek and simple modern containers, potting soil and related accessories. Deliveries are limited to a 10-mile radius.
“What we’re really doing is making the best out of what we’ve got in terms of real estate and capabilities,” Protell says. “Our e-commerce is a contained amount of business because of our physical plant. We’re at the outer limit as to what we can manage as we physically stand now.”
Protell says expanding the current e-commerce business would require additional employees, a larger facility and a larger financial commitment — all steps he’s not ready to take quite yet. But he is exploring options, including direct shipping from trusted entities.
Beyond revenue expansion, Protell sees local online sales as a means to spread Chelsea’s company culture and fulfill an urban need. “People have developed a trust in the quality of what you’re purveying,” he says. “You have a favorite butcher, you have a favorite florist, you have a favorite pharmacist. I want people to feel they can trust us electronically.”
For IGC owners considering e-commerce, Protell advises treading slowly and cautiously, and knowing the parameters of what your business infrastructure will allow. From your physical facility to inventory software to the employee staffing needed to manage incoming inventory, packaging and shipping, plus in-house and online sales.
“Most of the people in our business know the plant business and the merchandising business, and hopefully their customer base,” Protell says. “But the electronic world is a totally different animal.”
ROMENCE GARDENS & GREENHOUSES
Grand Rapids, Michigan
E-commerce adventures at Romence Gardens & Greenhouses began around 2010. In an area with a greenhouse on every corner, recession was in full bloom. Rather than cutting inventory, the third-generation grower-retailer looked for ways to move more inventory instead. Online sales provided an avenue.
Katey Romence remembers industry attitudes at the time: “Everybody said, ‘People will never buy plants online.’ I thought to myself, ‘I would. If I trusted the place, I totally would.’”
But rather than launching into internet sales, the IGC’s first steps focused on perfecting packaging and shipping. Almost a decade later, Romence Gardens offers nearly their entire live plant inventory online, up to 10-inch pots.
What they don’t offer on their site is hard goods. “You can usually get them cheaper on Amazon,” Romence says.
Part of the IGC’s online appeal is the quality of Romence-grown plants. “My dad and my brother are amazing growers,” Romence says. “We wanted to offer a really good plant, in a good size, so that people would feel like they walked into the garden center, picked it out and had it shipped to them.”
Plants ship from April through October to anywhere FedEx Ground delivers in the continental United States. In-house staff handle all aspects of order handling, packaging and shipping. The No. 1 e-commerce challenge? “Your busiest time is the same as your busy retail,” Romence shares.
Romence prefers not to name their current or previous e-commerce service providers; the IGC is on its third. The first one couldn’t handle the initial launch. The IGC outgrew what the second provider could offer. The third collaboration is going well.
She compares the growing pains to outgrowing your POS system or credit card processing services. “My father has always said, ‘If you don’t change with change, you’re gonna die.’ As technology changes, we all have to be on our toes as far as what’s going to work for our company,” she says.
For the Romence family, an essential part of the e-commerce experience has been taking who they are in retail and recreating that online.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on what all independent garden centers probably do, which is your knowledge, your customer service, your attention to detail and the highest quality you can muster,” she says.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to stay focused on what our mission statement is, what our garden center does, what our family believes in, and that’s what we try to move online.”
Asked about Amazon, Romence is succinct: “I’ll keep it simple and say if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” A follow-up question about selling on the retail giant’s marketplace yields, “No comment,” and a warm laugh.
A quick Amazon.com search fills in the blank: An appealing Romence-branded Amazon storefront offers Romence-grown plants shipped straight from their growing operation to consumer doors.