Selling Plants Online: Conquering The Next Frontier sells a selection of unique plants and products. sells a selection of unique plants and products.

Flowers are about to get a big, bad reputation — in a good way — with the relaunch of The online store has been in operation for nearly four years, selling specialized liners and plugs to hardcore gardeners. But as we went to press with this issue, was about to make another debut as a mail-order business selling a range of unique plants, artisan products, jewelry and art directly to consumers. The new site will host a big, bad consumer launch at the Philadelphia Flower Show, March 1-9, where it will distribute catalogs, generate excitement and sell plants.

Co-owned by brothers T. Jay and Chris Higgins, the company has roots in horticulture. T. Jay Higgins owns Sun-Fire Nurseries, a young plant operation based in Sarasota, Fla. Chris Higgins is a partner and general manager of Hort Americas, and also owns the recently launched eMagazine, Together, they make quite a team, with T. Jay focused on product fulfillment and Chris responsible for all computer technology and marketing aspects.

T. Jay Higgins says the business was born from his efforts to keep his operation productive and boost sales after shipping liners to grower customers in the winter. Sun-Fire Nurseries will join other growers who produce unique offerings as a supplier for

“When we started out, we were selling 72-cell plugs of bougainvillea, mandevilla and hibiscus, exactly what we were selling to growers,” he says. “By doing that, we learned what consumers want and expect. What draws me to the mail-order business is the evidence that profit margins can be much better, but if consumers are paying a premium price, they’re going to expect a premium product. The key is providing plants that offer instant gratification. We can’t sell something that consumers won’t enjoy for a year.”

Those premium plants will include a full line of herbs, edibles, succulents, annuals and tropicals. Slower-growing plants will be sold in small pots, and fast growers in larger containers. Grower partners will drop ship plants from their respective operations directly to consumers, in boxes printed with the logo on it,

Putting A Contemporary Twist On Mail Order

T. Jay Higgins
T. Jay Higgins

While most modern mail order businesses originate with a printed catalog and attempt to attract customers to their websites through massive direct mail campaigns, is taking the opposite approach. It will use ads in Better Homes and Gardens and Sunset magazines, and social media to market the website. Then, the brand will follow up with interested customers by sending a printed catalog.

“We’re going to have more direct contact and interaction with consumers,” he says. “We’ll feature videos for every plant, so consumers can learn how to grow and take care of them from a professional.”

While most videos will originate from Suntory Flowers, because Sun-Fire Nurseries is a rooting station for its tropical plants, has also hired Brand Manager Katie Ketelsen, a former writer for Better Homes and Gardens, to create videos on how to use plants and integrate them in the garden and in home décor. Ketelsen is also the brand’s blogger and social media whiz.

Online Sales Give Consumers Access To Off-The-Shelf Varieties

So many great varieties get lost along the path from the breeder to the consumer, and that’s where selling plants online comes in, Higgins says.

“Home Depot and Lowe’s might only want three SKUs of plants, in pink, red and white,” he says. “But what if we have eight SKUs to sell, in other colors? The consumer isn’t going to see five of them. We sell bougainvilleas and customers are always thrilled to find the unique colors online that they can’t find in stores.”

Selling those unique products is how Higgins says he hopes will set itself apart.

“We’re going to be a little more sassy and contemporary,” he says. “Everyone says the goal is to grab the younger crowd, and we want to show them that there are a lot of places in their lives where plants will fit, where people would use them if it was comfortable to them. Plants are presented in a very basic way currently. We’re going to show how they can be hip and cool, and add elements that will be interesting, like incorporating technology.”

For example, will couple information on how well plants filter the air in an office building, with plants that appeal to each gender.

“Obviously, a guy isn’t going to want a pretty, feminine-looking flower in the office,” Higgins says. “We’ll market plants that look cool on a guy’s desk, and create stuff that’s more masculine.”

At the same time, Gen Y isn’t going to want to buy plants just because they get an eMail that tells them to, Higgins says. Our industry needs to learn how to present plants in a way consumers will understand.

“Pandora Jewelry makes its money not by selling bracelets, but by selling charms at $30 to $100 a piece,” he says. “Consumers are competitive. We need to create that demand, that perception that our products are must-haves.”

Growers Must Evolve Beyond What’s Comfortable

If growers don’t begin to take more risks in selling their products, they may be writing their own autopsies, says Susie Raker, manager of sales and marketing for Litchfield, Mich.-based C. Raker & Sons, a supplier for The industry’s limited current supply chain is not ideal for future growth and continued success.

“My biggest concern in our industry is that we are so stuck in the supply chain: Breeder to grower to retailer. It’s been the same way for the past 40 years and we as an industry are not branching out beyond it. If we continue down the same road, we’ll be committing suicide.”

There is “a zillion” different ways to market plants, Raker says, and selling directly to consumers online is currently the most relevant. The main issue is doing it the right way and delivering the high standard of quality that consumers expect to receive.
“We’re growing the best product but if we can’t get it there, it doesn’t matter,” she says. “That’s the tricky part.”

Shipping plants individually to consumers is not the same as shipping flats of bedding plants to retail, or even shipping plugs and liners to finished growers, she says. First of all, the packaging costs as much as, if not more than the product itself. Add the cost of shipping, which can range from $12 to $18 to ship two-day or overnight air, and it gets expensive.

“Shipping a 6-inch poinsettia — it’s brittle, you have to protect the leaves and then you have this big ball of dirt. It’s complicated to get a small plant to the consumer not only in one piece, but looking great,” she says. “We have been drop-shipping packages out of Raker for a long time, and we have had to adapt to the product we ship.”

Selling Outside The Current Supply Chain Increases Grower Margins

C. Raker & Sons’ growing operation, usually pigeonholed strictly as a young plant grower, is often limited to buying and selling via the broker network. But the business also grows and sells finished plants, and is constantly in search of other venues and markets to sell them, Raker says.

“Selling online, I control my own destiny. I can succeed or fail and it’s hard work. We own the process from start to finish, but it’s worth it to have that freedom and that connection with consumers.”

Raker’s online pursuits include some existing consumer sites, as well as her own efforts, and she says the floriculture industry is uniquely suited for a great future with online sales.

“A few years ago, we had a couple of products we wanted to sell,” Raker says. “We were long on seed and we had a web developer on site, so we put a website together and sold plants online. We didn’t sell tens of thousands of plants but it showed potential — and the margins were great.”


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