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Features - E-commerce

Three Top 100 IGCs share insights, inspiration and unexpected angles to their e-commerce journeys.

July 14, 2022

Photo © Adobe Stock | Photographee.eu

When COVID-19 hit the United States in early 2020, independent garden centers across the country scrambled to meet the challenge. Businesses allowed to stay open were forced into curbside pickup and delivery mode — not a long-term sustainable model for IGCs. Amazon and other online retailers took off as consumers doubled down on buying online, and garden centers took note. But levels of preparedness for e-commerce ran the gamut from none to fully functional sites — and that included Top 100 IGCs in the mix.

Tom Mahoney, Mahoney’s Garden Centers
Photos courtesy of respective garden centers

Garden Center magazine’s 2020 State of the Industry Report shared that only 20% of IGCs in the survey had e-commerce before the coronavirus pandemic hit. By the fall of that same year, 45% of respondents had implemented e-commerce since the COVID-19 outbreak. But 2021’s State of the Industry Report found post-COVID e-commerce adoption still at 45%. Despite those figures, there’s been a lot happening with garden center e-commerce in the past few years.

Pandemic-driven adoption

For many IGCs, the pandemic accelerated latent e-commerce plans. Tom Mahoney, partner at Massachusetts-based Mahoney’s Garden Centers, felt the push to jump into e-commerce across the company’s seven retail stores. Up until COVID’s arrival, Mahoney’s e-commerce strategy was largely “wait and see.” The IGC planned to wait until IGC peers had e-commerce success and then replicate a successful model. That strategy quickly changed.

Eleni Roselli, Hicks Nurseries

“It became obvious to us that this was the time to go forward on e-commerce, because it would really help us offset the loss of revenue of people not being able to come to the store,” Mahoney says. “We said we have to be proactive here because the whole world was buying online in a way it never had before.” So, despite a lack of solid plans, the IGC jumped in with both feet that year.

For Long Island’s Hicks Nurseries, e-commerce was part of the long-range plan, but 2020 had no set schedule in place. “COVID-19 forced our hand,” director of marketing Eleni Roselli says. “We wanted to give our customers the option to place an order online without the need to come into the store … We wanted to give them that contactless shopping experience.” In October 2020, Hicks launched a retail e-commerce site, just in time for holiday sales.

Van Putte Gardens in Rochester, New York, was already on the e-commerce track, but the pandemic pushed it into high gear. Sales and Marketing Manager Michelle Castaneda, who oversees the IGC’s POS and e-commerce efforts, planned a total website upgrade, including e-commerce. But then a hacker struck the existing site, Van Putte’s website developer fell short and plans unraveled.

Michelle Castaneda, Van Putte Gardens

Castaneda’s original goal to launch e-commerce by spring 2021 felt rushed. And the thought of working out kinks at the height of spring put the project on hold until fall. The extra time paid off with a successful fall 2021 launch and excellent Christmas sales, especially with gift cards.

“I'm so glad that we waited, because it would have been chaos and we were just able to spend that much more time,” Castaneda says. “We kind of picked the project back up in June and July, finished tweaking everything over the summer, and got it all to that functionality that we were really hoping for.”

Platform priorities

When choosing an e-commerce platform, integration with point-of-sale (POS) systems is a top consideration. But every IGC has unique priorities that drive its e-commerce choice. With seven retail locations, Mahoney’s customer-centric approach focused on the ability to shop inventory at individual locations and meet customer needs.

As part of that, Mahoney’s wanted e-commerce capabilities, particularly for bulk product delivery, that could take orders, set delivery charges and schedule deliveries automatically, right down to rolling to the next day when one day gets full.

Van Putte’s had a similar emphasis on bulk product delivery — a complicated e-commerce process — when they continued their e-commerce plan step-by-step for spring 2022.

“Our main focus was bulk delivery. We wanted to make sure that customers could order the bulk products online, pick their delivery date, calculate their delivery fee based on zip code and have all that function,” Castaneda says. Plus, cashiers needed to be able to view online orders within 15 minutes of when they were placed.

The main focus for the team at Van Putte Gardens was to create an e-commerce platform that contained enhanced functionality for creative design.
Photos courtesy of Van Putte Gardens

Before Hicks’ fall 2020 retail launch, Roselli researched platforms used by leading brands such as Sephora, Whole Foods and Kylie Cosmetics. A deciding factor was the winning platform’s enhanced functionality for creative design, with retail customers specifically in mind.

This spring, Hicks’ wholesale division launched e-commerce using a different platform that emphasizes built-in sales features and accommodates more product variations. For now, the IGC plans to learn as it goes and decide whether to streamline the platforms or keep them separate down the road.

For both platforms, Hicks invested in integrators that sync inventories automatically with each respective e-commerce platform. The IGC also invested in several applications that add specific functionality to the base platforms — something Roselli says many people don’t understand is necessary with e-commerce sites.

As examples, Roselli added a retail page-building app that enhances design flexibility and one that allows recommendations for product add-ons and cross-selling opportunities. Another retail app solicits customer ratings on both the product and the shopping experience. On the wholesale side, an added app enables customers to request a quote and get confirmation before placing an order.

“There's a lot of different bells and whistles you can do through the use of apps,” Roselli says. “It's all about the customer experience. And that's what we're focused on.”

Strategic selections

Thoughtfully choosing what to offer on e-commerce — and what not to offer — is an important part of the journey to online sales. At Mahoney’s, the team dove into what customers needed most and what the IGC could reliably sell online.

“This industry is notorious for not having good barcode data across all inventory,” Mahoney says. Generic bar codes used by some vendors — like unspecified two-gallon perennials — won’t fly online.

Mahoney’s started with its florist shops, an easy reach for customers used to buying floral online. Next came bulk items that didn’t use barcodes, such as loam and mulch, followed by hard goods, lawn fertilizers and similar items. Gift cards turned out to be the “low-hanging fruit,” Mahoney says. “That's the first thing you want to put up.” Houseplants were another easy add with good response.

For 2021, Mahoney’s tackled barcode issues by investing in labeling equipment to barcode all annuals from its own growing range, by variety. Mahoney says the expensive upgrade was necessary to get reliable plant inventory for online sales.

After Hicks Nurseries tested e-commerce waters in 2020 with artificial Christmas trees — an easy-to-fulfill boxed item — it added indoor plants in January 2021. Next up were outdoor plants, pottery, garden supplies and outdoor furniture. New products are still going up this year.

“We wanted to walk before we ran,” Roselli says. “Our online offerings were very strategic in terms of the categories we included.” Click on the website’s invitation to shop online and you’re taken to Hicks Nurseries Essentials. “We don't offer everything on our online store. It's a curated selection of products that we feel we have the most depth and demand for that retail side,” Roselli says.

After bulk ordering, Van Putte Gardens took their next step. “We started adding other products onto the website that we could trust would be in stock,” Castaneda says. Bagged stone and mulch, fertilizer, weed control and similar products are online or going up soon. But with 500 e-commerce items from 10,000 possible SKUs, she says there’s room for growth.

This February, Castaneda ran an e-commerce promotion to pre-order 12-inch combination planters with a 10-day pickup window in May. Seventy planters sold, every order was picked up and everything ran smoothly through Van Putte’s website.

“I think that was actually our first real insight that this could be a lot more successful, given proper time and thought process behind it,” she says. Classes and workshop registrations may go up soon.

Staffing considerations

Most of Van Putte’s e-commerce duties fall in Castaneda’s lap. “It’s kind of a full-time job, just managing the website,” she says. If full-time staff dedicated to your website and e-commerce aren’t in your plans, she says finding a web developer with excellent customer support is critical. Ideally, that developer should have experience with your POS system and the e-commerce platforms you choose.

Hicks hired freelance web designers and developers to help create their e-commerce sites and optimize functionality. But the bulk of e-commerce’s day-to-day work stays in-house. “We have our in-house internal team,” Roselli says. “In terms of the fulfillment team, operations and marketing, it’s the same people — just added to our responsibilities.”

At Mahoney’s Garden Centers, owner Tom Mahoney rolled out the IGC’s e-commerce operations by department, starting with floral.
Photos courtesy of Mahoney’s Garden Centers

She recommends starting slow, learning how to execute and fulfill each order efficiently, and getting internal buy-in from all team members, so everyone is on the same page from the start.

Mahoney Garden Centers hired a new person to lead their e-commerce efforts — an essential step in Mahoney’s eyes: “An owner of an IGC can’t be thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to do e-commerce. I’m going to have my marketing department do it or have my operations team handle it.’”

He describes e-commerce as a massive undertaking that requires a dedicated leadership position. That leader must be able to work with all the functions of your garden center, from marketing to operations and finance, because e-commerce affects them all.

“If you're going to go down this path, you must have all the cross-functions of your garden center in the room. It's not a marketing or IT thing. It is marketing, IT, finance, ops. You need everybody rowing in the same direction,” Mahoney says. And it takes time and commitment.

“Don't underestimate the amount of time, money and work that's necessary to do this right by your customer. It's been a tremendous effort on our end to get as far as we have. And it can be disappointing at times, when you look at the sales volumes coming through,” he says. “Just remember that there's other reasons why you're doing it. You’re not doing it just for the volume that comes through online.”

Lessons learned

In his big picture, Mahoney says e-commerce sales are negligible — less than 10% to 15% of sales in those categories and less than one-half percent of total sales. “When you look at it in isolation, is it a good ROI? No, it's a terrible ROI,” he says. But he says the real point to the effort and expense is the customer experience and remaining relevant to today’s consumers.

“One of the things that we've learned through this exercise — and I think everybody's learned — is customers like to touch and feel their plants before buying them. Doing it online is not a preferred method at all,” Mahoney says.

Instead, customers go on the website, identify plants they like, then they come into the stores to buy, with their phones in hand. “We’re recognizing that omni-channel experience as being one of the premier reasons for having the e-commerce site,” Mahoney says.

Plus, there are other collateral benefits, including staff freed up from phone orders to wait on in-store customers instead. And e-commerce has forced the Mahoney’s team to up their inventory game, which means better data for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar stores.

Van Putte sees a similar benefit. “We processed over 250 orders this spring through the website, which is 250 customers we were able to service at their convenience,” Castaneda says. “That’s 250 less phone calls or in-person interactions that we were able to save time on and still deliver exactly what the customer wanted.”

Roselli echoes Mahoney’s insights and sees retail e-commerce as a driver for in-store sales. “E-commerce is the first point of contact for people looking to buy something, so it's your online catalog, so to speak,” she says. Like Mahoney’s, Hicks customers look online, then head for the store.

“Now that they're more comfortable coming out to shop in stores, they'll come to the store after they see something online. So, it has affected in-store sales in a positive way,” Roselli says.

While e-commerce is still a fraction of Hicks sales, Roselli says the retail site is holding its own and 2021 sales increased from 2020. “But I think the more important thing is it gives our customers that online catalog that they're able to see what we have,” she says.

Looking forward

For IGCs starting down an e-commerce path, Castaneda advises thinking for the long-term. “Try to know the end from the beginning. Know where you want your site to go, as far as functionality in five or 10 years, because it'll help you create a website that's buildable,” she says.

She also suggests focusing on how consumers with shop your site and set up online categories accordingly. For example, your POS may categorize products by vendors or brands, but your customers shop by generic searches such as “dandelion killer” instead.

At Hicks Nurseries, the first point of customer contact is often through the online catalog. Retail e-commerce drives customers into the garden center — leading to more in-store purchases.
Photos courtesy of Hicks Nurseries

“Trying to categorize products in a consumer-friendly layout on a website is probably top priority,” Castaneda says. “It doesn't really matter how great your website is if they can't find the product they want to buy.” With the movement toward more convenient, 24/7 shopping from home, she believes ICGs must grow with that trend or be left behind.

Roselli says the key to success is ensuring the customer has a good e-commerce experience from start to finish. That includes providing easy navigation online, pulling the very best plants for customers who buy sight unseen, and delivering a seamless curbside pickup or delivery.

“Building an e-commerce business is just that — it's a separate business,” Roselli says. “It takes a lot of time, effort and investment. And it needs focus, attention and a team to build on it. It's something that I think people need to be in. E-commerce is not just a sales driver, it's a tool to drive sales to an in-store location as well.”

Mahoney says he’s not sure where or how it all ends, but e-commerce isn’t optional in his eyes.

“We feel that e-commerce is part of the Mahoney experience. This is a necessary thing for the total omni-channel experience at Mahoney’s,” he says. “If we can accomplish that omni-channel presence online that drives people into our stores, then we've succeeded.”

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Garden Center magazine. Reach her at jolene@jolenehansen.com.