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Green shoots: How garden eCommerce is beginning to bloom

Brits love gardening, spending an average of £24 billion per year on products. But while more than two-thirds of us frequent garden centres, according to the Horticultural Trades Association, eCommerce sales are beginning to flourish.

“While many consumers prefer in-person purchases for their garden goods, the growth of online horticultural retailing reflects the wider consumer trend towards internet shopping,” found a report by Oxford Economics commissioned by the body last year. “Consumer research shows that around £1 in every £10 of expenditure on garden plants is now spent online.”

According to analyst firm IMRG, garden was the fourth-strongest growth category in 2018, up 18% for the year as a whole – a figure which includes outdoor furniture sales.

Millais Nurseries, which runs Rhododendrons.co.uk, reported online sales growth of 40% last year. The firm worked with eCommerce agency Iconography to revamp its website, which went live last August.

“That isn’t necessarily all down to the website, we had a fantastic Spring, compared with the ‘beast from the east’ last year, and we’ve been at Chelsea flower show this year, which has helped. But I have no doubt the new website contributed,” says its owner David Millais

The specialist has over 3,000 varieties of the flower, with lots of separate information about months the flowers bloom, height and dimensions – all of which is available on the site. The firm’s stock management system is also linked to the website, so customer know what is available in real-time.

Taking charge

Millais distributes across the UK and Europe. But to make online work customers have to pay for delivery.

“We did look at using Amazon, but the margins are so tight we couldn’t make it work. Especially the requirement of a single delivery charge throughout the whole country. That just doesn’t work if you are supplying the Shetlands… we’re not sending out a little shirt in a jiffy bag… we have to pay a lot more for delivery than people imagine.”

Lyndan Orvis, head of online development at Hayes Garden World in the Lake District, agrees that delivery costs can make online garden retail prohibitive.

The firm has had huge success selling garden furniture online – with average spend £370 – but when it comes to plants the margins currently do not make it worthwhile.

“The plant business is so challenging,” he says. “We’ve tried with dry-root products – and roses. But we’ve not really had much success.”

The model tends to be delivery via fulfilment centres rather than independent’s own stock, which means they can’t always guarantee the quality. And the nature of the items means they tend to be too heavy and hard to transport, while the products themselves remain low-volume.

“That’s not to say we won’t go down that route – but we have so far tended to stay at the higher end.”

Planting ideas

Nevertheless, ordering plants online is becoming increasingly popular. Aron Gelbard, CEO of letterbox delivery company Bloom & Wild, says its growing more rapidly than its flower sales.

“Customers choose plant gifts for their longevity and are drawn to the fact that green fingered recipients can re-plant them. In addition, the novelty that initially made our letterbox flowers popular has been even greater with plants, due to our innovations such as letterbox mini Christmas trees, edible letterbox plant products such as chilli plants (in soft canvas letterbox friendly pots) and windowsill herbs, and pairing of plant products with letterbox wine bottles to create mini hampers.”

He says the firm has invested heavily in customer service, having trained its team up on flower and plant knowledge “so that they are able to provide the sort of advice that customers might otherwise go to a garden centre for via live chat, phone, or social media.”

Despite the increase in online sales, insight director at IMRG, Andy Mulcahy, comments that sellers with a store estate may still be more attractive to customers. “The overall revenue we take in for the garden sector is lower than many of the other sectors, even though it has a good sample of retailers in it,” he adds.

As Orvis notes, the effort and cost of selling a huge variety of products that do not always lend themselves well to delivery may also put some retailers off.

While it doesn’t seem likely the great British pastime of browsing garden centres on the weekend will die off any time soon, online is now a budding sector.

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