Taking plant sales to the digital space

A look at the burgeoning business of online nurseries
August 14, 2018
Written by Anne-Marie Hardie
Taking plant sales to the digital space
Photo credit: Ontario Native Plants
Late this February, online retailer, Amazon, launched the Amazon Plant Store offering shrubs, flowers, and succulents across the United States. Currently, Amazon Plant is restricted to the United States, but Canadians are beginning to go online to source and purchase gardening products.

In 2017, Euromonitor International reported that Canadians purchased $3 million CAD of gardening products online. This category included horticultural products, garden tools, garden care products, pots and planters. Most Canadian garden centres have established an online presence, using social media and their website as tools to draw consumers into their brick and mortar store.

However, there are a few companies that have responded to a gap in the market, providing an opportunity for consumers to purchase their products online.

Botanus in Langley, BC began selling their bulbs and bare roots plants online in 2003, when online shopping was still in its infancy. Originally a mail-order company, they offered local customers speciality materials that they could not get at their local garden centre. Twenty-two years later, the business has evolved to a 64-page biannual catalog and services customers across Canada. Today, the majority of Botanus’ purchases are made online. One of the advantages, shares owner/manager, Pam Dangelmaier, is that companies can make themselves readily available to respond to consumers’ questions, concerns or requests. This helps develop rapport, not only as a supplier, but as a trusted resource for education and advice.

Establishing trust
Developing a strong consumer rapport is critical for both new sales and consumer retention. To respond to the need of a gardening community, Botanus created an online garden club, which releases a gardening video every Thursday. For an additional point of contact, Botanus continues to print and offer their biannual catalog. “Although the majority of our orders are now online, it would be a mistake for us to not print the catalog,” says Dangelmaier. “It is one more tool that we use to connect with our customers. We want people to know who we are and where they are getting their plants from.”

Paramount Nursery founder, Simon Moss, also strives to maintain a personal connection with each of his customers. This includes packing and delivering each order and taking the time to respond to his customers questions or simply say hello. “Our customers are happy,” says Moss. “We personally deliver each plant, quickly, and efficiently. In fact, what they order this morning, they will have the next business day.” It is this hands-on approach that has helped Moss develop a loyal customer base.

Filling a gap in his community
Frustrated by the time it took to source the right plant material in his community, Moss left landscaping to open an online garden centre. He wanted to provide a virtual garden centre, where the stock would be regularly and accurately updated. “It’s the perfect business model, my only overhead are the delivery vehicles,” says Moss. He buys directly from growers and wholesalers when he get orders. When customers are seeking a plant that is not on the website, Moss will find the product and deliver it.

Paramount Nursery’s sales continue to increase. Delivery has expanded to all of south-eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec, with a bilingual website slated for mid-July. With sales tripling this past May, Moss attributes this growth to his customer service and using the right marketing tools, specifically, Google ads. “There is a demand for online plant purchases,” says Moss. “The biggest challenge is getting your name out there.”



Responding to consumer demand
John Verbinnen, co-owner Verbinnen Nursery, Dundas, Ontario began looking at the online plant store model, to respond to a gap in the consumer market. “We received numerous requests from the public, conservation authorities and colleagues because they could not find a source for most of the herbaceous native species,” he says. They were left with two options, create a brick and mortar retail division or offer their products online. Their solution was the virtual company, Ontario Native Plants, which provides access to native plants to consumers across Ontario. According to Verbinnen, hosting the store online “was the most economical way to sell to the public compared to setting up our own garden centre. There was also the benefit that we can sell plants all across Ontario.  With a garden centre you are limited to people living within a reasonable driving distance.”

Their target for the initial year, 2017, was 100 sales, which they surpassed by 50 per cent. This year, their goal is 250 sales. “To date, we have reached the 200 mark and we expect to surpass our goal and possibly reach 300 sales,” Verbinnen says.

The online retail market comes with a unique set of challenges including ensuring that the stock is regularly updated, quick response time to customer concerns/questions, and providing an exceptional delivery experience.

Perfecting the box unveiling
For the online consumer, the arrival of the package is often the first point of physical contact with the company. To ensure that their package presents their brand experience, each shipment is reviewed by a minimum of three Botanus’ employees before it is sent to the customer. “We want this package to be a beautiful experience, as if, we were sending the package to our own mom, “says Dangelmaier.

Initially, Ontario Native Plants underestimated both the time and the amount of packaging needed to fully protect the plants. They tested several packing options at first by shipping them to their friends and themselves. “We had to think about how to reduce the time for packing and the costs of the packing materials without impacting the quality,” says propagation manager Alex Verbinnen. Today, their packaging approach ensures that their plants are not only properly packaged within an acceptable timeframe, but also that the materials are sustainable and cost-effective.

The customer experience has become as important, if not more important, in the virtual shopping space. Although the gardening industry currently represents a small proportion of Canadian e-commerce, there is an opportunity for growth.

E-commerce should not be looked at as a replacement to a brick and mortar store. Instead, it offers a tool for garden centres to expand their market reach and establish themselves as experts in niche areas of the industry.

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