Since 1991, Mischel’s Greenhouses Ltd. in Michigan has been mailing specialty annuals to customers across the country. John and Renee Mischel started out with wholesale growing, which continues today. The decision to try retail mail-order came in part because of a need to diversify the market, John says. What started out as only eight varieties of geraniums has since grown to approximately 102 varieties of specialty annuals.
While the success of Mischel’s (www.mischelsgreenhouses.com) mail-ordering increases each year, John and Renee agree starting a mail order business was no easy task and required a lot of dedication and hard work. “We had to do a lot of trial and error to figure out the best way to go about reaching our customers,” says Renee. “It certainly is a slow growing thing,” John adds. “What it takes is time to cultivate relationships with your customers. It took perseverance and slowly gaining confidence in customers through them telling their friends about us.”
Renee says they faced many challenges once the mail order business was up and running, especially with shipping–how to ship the plants, what size pot to use and how to get plants to customers on time and with no damage, without costing a lot.
“How to schedule the plants is a huge factor because when you’re shipping from Texas in March and to Minnesota in June, you can’t plant everything at one time,” Renee says. “We’re always fine tuning our shipping,” John adds. “The biggest challenge is providing a beautiful quality plant delivered to that customer.”
At first, the Mischels conducted their mail order venture simply through word of mouth. Now customers can order plants from a catalog or via the company’s Web site. In the catalog, annuals are listed according to sun/shade needs. The catalog also includes flower combination suggestions for those who may have trouble pairing plants together or just want some new ideas for their flower baskets or beds. A handy plant arrangement guide shows possible upright, mounding and trailing plant arrangements based on the size and shape of your container, and a chart shows how many plants you should order.
A color-coded map outlines garden zones and when plants will be shipped based on Zone. Customers also have the option of purchasing fertilizer and soil mix from Mischel’s. “How to plant, when to plant, how many to plant, all those types of things are what the consumers want and need,” Renee says.
Why The Success?
Renee thinks the mail order success is in large part because of Mischel’s ability to produce a quality product that few other mail order companies provide. “Our clientele is looking for specific products in specific colors delivered at a specific time sequence. We have the ability to do that,” she says. “Service, price, quality and consistency have made the company grow,” she adds.
Renee points out that once they put together a brochure and began keeping in-house files of customers and potential customers, the catalog and mailing list began growing and continues to grow on a yearly basis.
In 2005, the Mischels started a new venture, called Know-n-Grow, which was an attempt at mail-order vegetable gardens. However, this venture did not prove fruitful and lasted only one growing season.
“It’s a great idea and we gave it a shot,” John says. “I think we had a great success except nobody bought any.” Renee and John both say Know-n-Grow was a large financial investment that was taking much more money than it was bringing in. “We decided to put it on the backburner and do more research on it until we could develop it further,” Renee says.
Both John and Renee say growers who may be thinking about starting a mail order business need to be patient and understand it will take a lot of time. John suggests starting small. “You can really never rest on your laurels. We go to trial gardens and look and see what’s out there, and we’re looking for the best varieties,” he says.
On The Horizon
The Mischels are always working on growing and improving their product. “We are always trying new things,” Renee says. “The catalog will continue to grow and we will continue to offer new, innovative things to our customers. We’re looking at all kinds of different options for growth.” John would like to improve on advertising. “You can always improve your advertising. We’re doing our best right now with our brochure (and the) Internet that we can,” he says. “As more money comes in, we’ll definitely invest it into both.”
The couple has talked about a possible jump into retail, although Renee says right now they have no plans to do so. “Our loyal customer base knows us and likes us and is looking for more new, different things, and we’re going to continue to try to provide that.”