Growing For One?

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Growing for the consumer, that’s what you do, no matter where your place is in the growing process. You have it down to a science − you know how many to grow and when to grow them.

Now try placing the word “online” before consumer. At first take, it might sound like an unpredictable commitment on your end, with small, singular orders and all that individual packaging and postage. And some questions might arise: Is there a better chance to mark up your goods? Will you need to overhaul your growing strategies?

In reality, the sale of online potted plants isn’t a shot in the dark or a guessing game, and as experts in the industry explain, it’s simply a demand for ”super high quality plants.”

Responding With Quality

There’s no question companies like FloraServ, ProFlowers and Red Envelope rely on their growers. And according to FloraServ’s Ben Swett, quality and responsiveness are the two most important characteristics a big time drop-shipper looks for when partnering up with a grower. 

“Quality because each plant goes out as a single order to a specific individual who may have paid a total of $50 for it, which includes shipping and the profit margins of our retail customers,” Swett says. “If a customer’s plant stinks, we will have to refund and re-ship – so instead of making a few dollars on that order, we’re suddenly down $50 or more.”

So while 97 percent might be fine for plants headed for the garden center, each plant that hits FloraServ’s packing line must be 100 percent florist-selected top quality. The plants delivered must look exactly like their photographs, Swett says.

Responsiveness is another important quality to FloraServ. “It’s because our business has odd ups and downs, and depends on just-in-time inventory,” he says. “Often, opportunities will come up during a holiday where a customer will have a run on a certain variety, and we’ll be desperately looking for a chance for them to extend the number of plants we had set aside for them, or sometimes even try to find a close substitution.”

Working with FloraServ, and considered by Swett as one of the company’s best suppliers, is Nurserymen’s Exchange, a growing operation known for high quality roses and consistency. Early on, Nurserymen’s did its own drop shipping. Orders would come in from various catalogs and dot-com companies, and then Nurserymen’s would box up and send out the orders itself.

“At one point, we would ship out a plant or two at a time,” says Nurserymen’s John Susa. “We found it wasn’t the best for us. We decided to go with professional drop-shippers and just supply them with the plants.”

When it comes to growing, the small, single orders, they are no longer an issue for this reputable grower. “There’s really no difference in how to grow,” Susa says. “Typically, you’ll get projections a year in advance and the projections come from the actual customers they serve. They’re really true to their projections.”

Online Trials

In just a few years, Louisiana’s Dupont Nursery has become a leader in growing and selling unique varieties of hibiscus, thanks to Robert Dupont.

While in college, his grandson Robert III took a basic computer programming class that involved building a website. It was there he realized the unlimited potential a company website could have. Around 2001, he approached his grandfather, asking him if he thought it might be a good idea to sell the hibiscuses online at the retail level.

“I thought it would be a good idea to get the website going and create demand because the garden centers weren’t interested,” says Robert III. “We launched it in 2004. In 2005 we sold 1380 hibiscuses. That year we sold 58 of our ‘Black Dragon,’ which also won hibiscus of the year. In 2006 we sold 170 of ‘Black Dragon.’ We started to see an increase in demand.” Traffic and demand have increased each passing year.

When it comes to a new variety, the Duponts go online before they release it to their growers and retail customers. “We trial it on our website to see if people are interested and create demand,” Dupont says. In terms of growing, literally, the nursery will usually begin with 36 to 50 cuttings of the new variety, setting 18 of those aside and making them available for online sales.

Picture Perfect

Doug Brothers, sales/marketing manager for Rocket Farms, agrees knowing what you have and what you need to have well in advance is key. Along with its own direct shipping, orchid-grower Rocket Farms sells to ProFlowers, Red Envelope and 1-800-FLOWERS.

“I know the color I’ll have six months in advance for that holiday,” Brothers says. “I’ll send them an e-mail on a monthly basis, saying these are the colors that will be available for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day or Christmas.”

Rocket Farms, based in California, has done business with dot-com companies for roughly two-and-a-half years. Brothers adds that growing for online consumers can be a little different compared to growing for retailers. And much like FloraServ’s Swett mentioned, the picture of the product found on the drop-shipper’s website has everything to do with the product ending up on a consumer’s doorstep.

“You have to have a picture, and the customer has to get what he or she sees in the picture, or a very close substitute,” he says. “With a dot-com company, you’re basically growing a specific color and a specific color is what they are choosing to put online.

“The key is to try to grow the colors that they can keep online permanently or online seasonally,” Swett adds. “And that’s the difficult side of it. A certain color will do really well, but in the orchid world, it’s very difficult to have the same color come in month after month.”

Online sales have been OK for Rocket Farms this year. “I see that during the holidays, we did the same or similar to last year,” Brothers says. “When ordering online, I see people are looking for the deals. … If they see $5 or $10 off an item, they tend to go that direction.”
One might assume growing for “dot-commers” who specialize in single-consumer orders, there would be a definite opportunity for mark-ups, but Brothers explains with all the competition out there, it’s not that simple.

“Dot-commers have many sources depending on logistics. So if someone’s buying an orchid in New York, you wouldn’t necessarily order the orchid from California − you’d get it shipped from Florida. So you need to be competitive with growers in Florida who might be able to get away with selling an orchid for less, because of growing conditions and cheaper shipping costs.”

In the end, Brothers is able to mark up product more than the supermarkets to which Rocket Farms sells. “You really need to be a high quality grower to do well.”

Mihalek is a former Meister Media Worldwide editor.

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