Tree departments at independent garden centers often have a seasonal pattern: sales are strong in spring, steady by summer and drop off in fall and winter, resulting in discounts and lost margins. Inventory is often difficult to manage, takes up precious space, and overhead costs are high.
IGCs also have another challenge — more consumers are shopping online or seeking click-and-brick options, and many garden retailers haven’t yet posted their products for perusal or purchase on the web.
Don Eaton, co-founder of Eaton Farms, a wholesale grower of trees, shrubs and nursery stock for independent garden centers and landscapers, launched a company that he hopes will help solve these problems for retailers by creating an e-commerce brand for not just IGCs, but others in the green industry as well.
Bower & Branch allows consumers to shop more than 200 varieties of trees online, purchase them if they are suitable for their climates, and request to have them delivered to their local independent garden center. Those local IGCs sign up to be members of Bower & Branch for a fee, and receive a portion of the profits that are competitive with in-store margins on trees in peak season, Eaton says. First conceived in 2008, Eaton launched the program in 2010, which required production changes at his nursery and producing product shots of the hundreds of trees available, not to mention establishing the website.
According to many sources, more than 80 percent of consumers conduct online research before shopping and buying products, and Eaton is concerned that independents aren’t visible.
“If we’re not out there [online], if nobody is doing that, and we leave it strictly to mail-order stuff … we’re going to lose,” Eaton says. “I fear tomorrow. What will America look like if our independent industry does not survive? There will be a lot missing. Our program is for growers, too. We’ve got to come together in a trustful way and in a beneficial way. We just don’t have enough control over demands or trends. This will begin to provide that.”
The trees are organized on the website in various ways and include professional photographs of close-ups of leaves or branches and the tree in containers, so customers know exactly what they are buying. Categories include “Suburban Streets,” “Timeless Estate” and “Woodland,” and “Best Sellers” are clearly labeled on the home page.
Independent garden centers can offer planting and delivery, with options to provide services within a few days, a week or more, and there are no minimums on orders. Consumers can buy trees in advance as well, allowing garden centers to pre-sell their seasons.
Garden centers promote the Bower & Branch brand on their websites, linking out to the e-commerce site and making it clear that they are partners, but consumers can also find their nearest IGC via the Bower & Branch website.
There are more than 50 members in 23 states in the Northeast, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, and the plan is to grow this number and expand west.
Bower & Branch provides members with an e-commerce website, sales and technology training to be able to carry out the program. Eaton envisions three phases to the program: capturing lost sales, helping garden centers embrace e-commerce, and eventually assisting IGCs in establishing direct consumer shipping programs. He wants to create a nationwide partnership of independents under Bower & Branch, and hopes that it will become the preferred online garden brand for consumers in the U.S.
“To learn to do e-commerce takes a culture change, and it takes an average of five to seven years to change a business culture. This decision is a tough one for owners,” Eaton says. “They know it represents almost a new business and a different type of thinking.”
Eaton Farms is the only grower in the program now, but it plans to enroll growers this fall as well as 100 more member IGCs, capping it to help control and manage growth of the business, Eaton says.
Eaton works alongside his six children, who are involved in both businesses, and also hired a team of experts in digital and social media marketing, web development, photography and design.
“I can grow trees really well. The rest of the stuff I’m learning and educating myself as quickly as possible. We’re learning how to do online sales, we’re operating live chat. One of my daughters Wendi-jo, she’s our online personality,” Eaton says. “Every Saturday, Wendi-jo and I work, answering question after question online. That’s a very important part of what we do because we want our brand to stay human, we want the brand to be what the independents are, families, that direct connection. We can build online relationships that are powerful, just like having [customers] in front of you.”
That willingness to try something new is what first drew Tim Bate, nursery manager at Skillins Greenhouses, with three locations in Maine, to the Bower & Branch program. Skillins bought nursery stock from Eaton in the past, and the wholesale grower presented their online tree sales idea to them.
“We felt good about the product that they were selling,” Bate says. “They grow a quality tree, and they were willing to put a lot of energy and marketing behind the approach and convinced us that they had a pretty strong plan to build online sales.”
This is the first time they’ve offered trees on the web.
“Right now, any [tree] that’s on the Bower & Branch website is seen by our customers for selection,” Bate says. “If a customer picks out a tree that may not work up here, then somebody from Bower & Branch has called me in the past, asking, ‘Will this tree grow in your area?’ before finalizing the sale.”
Onboarding started in 2014, and that summer, Skillins sent Bower & Branch pertinent information, such as the delivery and planting pricing information should a customer request home delivery instead of in-store pick-up. Customers can also add on items, including fertilizer and a watering system. If they purchase certain items that help guarantee survival of the tree, Bower & Branch provides a three-year guarantee.
After enrolling, Skillins started with a soft launch in the fall of 2014.
“We sold a handful of trees, and it was kind of the end of our season here, and it gave us a chance to see how it worked,” he says. “We used that experience to put together some information to share with the staff here and educate them on the new website.”
They didn’t see a surge in tree sales at first, he says.
“Honestly, we were pretty busy selling trees right from our yard here. But as soon as the spring rush selling season was done, the sales started to pick up on the website, and we had a very, very strong summer and fall with trees on the website,” he says. “We were all very happy with how that ended this past season.”
For Skillins, Bower & Branch helped solve inventory challenges and broadened their offerings. It also helped capture new customers who may prefer searching trees from the comfort of their couch.
Bate recommends that garden centers ensure their staffs are trained thoroughly on the new program and how to talk to customers who may call the store with follow-up questions.
Initially, Craig Calef, vice president of Corliss Brothers Garden Center and Nursery in Ipswich, Mass., had reservations about the program.
“I had skepticism just from the logistics standpoint, and not knowing if they were going to be able to pull this off,” Calef says. “I just came to the realization that if anyone could make this work, it was Don Eaton. He’s acknowledging that this is the future for e-commerce, and it’s been underutilized in the garden center industry, so I think it’s a good opportunity.”
Calef says there was a learning curve initially — before Bower & Branch, they weren’t doing too much online or with social media. Part of their challenge is figuring out how to market the website better so people know it’s available.
“We have a dedicated computer here, which we can use to show the customer the website and the different trees on there,” he says. “If they want to, they can buy the tree right there at our store through the website.”
That aspect has been particularly helpful for Tom Hilgeman, general manager at White Oak Gardens in Cincinnati, Ohio, who had not worked with Eaton Farms before signing on with Bower & Branch.
“A very high percentage of our sales so far for Bower & Branch has been from customers in the store looking for trees. We were able to walk them over to the kiosk and help them find the tree they wanted,” Hilgeman says. “This spring, we will concentrate on the likelihood that customers see us online.”
Hilgeman believes that will happen this spring, as they just started selling trees online this past fall.
“People who are working for Bower & Branch, they’re smart. They know online sales, they know online marketing,” he says. “We’re seeing [customer interest] online; we’re selling mulch deliveries and top soil deliveries and gift cards. This is an opportunity to expand that without making a giant investment. We can still sell it online, but Bower & Branch is taking care of the back end of it.”
The cost of establishing e-commerce is the hurdle that Eaton hopes to remove for independents. Eaton has his next sights on the West Coast, where he hopes to start onboarding IGCs in the fall of 2017. Long-term, he wants to expand Bower & Branch’s online offerings.
“I don’t see a way for independents to engage in e-commerce today if they try to go at it alone,” Eaton says. “But together, we can build a site and bring every IGC into the online world.”