The Grower’s Exchange Unlocks The Secret to E-Commerce

Kenan and Briscoe White, Growers Exchange
Kenan (left) and Briscoe (right) White are more than marriage partners and co-founders of The Grower’s Exchange. Kenan is the force behind the company’s marketing initiatives, while Briscoe takes care of day-to-day production as Head Grower.

The Grower’s Exchange first began when a 24-year-old young man working for a real estate management company decided he wanted to grow plants for a living. Briscoe White was “cursed with agriculture.” Despite this affliction, however, White didn’t know much about the industry. What would make a white-collar city-slicker pursue the unknown? Perhaps it had something to do with his rebellious side.

“When I was a kid, I had long hair, and all the parents thought I was nothing but trouble,” he says. “I’ve been on the other side of the establishment since I was born.”

Determined, White quickly began studying the ins and outs of the market, Greenhouse Grower magazine in hand.

“I started because I wanted to do it,” White says. “I love greenhouse growing because it gives me a wide variety. You can grow all sorts of things in a greenhouse.”

In 1985, The Grower’s Exchange was born in an abandoned Texaco gas station in Richmond, VA. For more than 20 years, White and his wife Kenan operated a brick-and-mortar garden store, selling everything from top-quality culinary herbs to perennials, flowering plants, succulents, a whole lot of geraniums, and more. The store truly was the “exchange” White envisioned when his so-called hippie sensibilities prompted the operation’s name.

“I discovered I wanted to be a grower, so I worked my way to that, but I also wanted there to be an exchange of communication between the customers and us,” White says, explaining the play on words. “It’s an exchange because we sell plants, but it’s also an exchange in the sense that we have open communications on gardening topics.”

White says many of The Grower’s Exchange’s crops came from customer suggestions and requests. While this led to some trend-chasing, The Grower’s Exchange first got into perennials during the category’s “magic moment.”

Sharing ideas and information, along with the company’s community-focused guiding principles, propelled the business forward. Two years later, the Whites opened a nursery in Charles City, VA, a technology-adverse area located 25 miles from the store.

Shipping Line At Growers Exchange
The shipping line at The Grower’s Exchange works like a well-oiled machine. “We had to tighten up our operations to be on the Internet,” Owner Briscoe White says. “The biggest problem is committing to sell a plant to a customer that we can’t ship to them. If they spend their money with us, we want to make sure we get them what they expected.”

The Secret To Boosting Online Plant Sales

Despite a 20-year heyday, the Whites found that in 2005, their products had outgrown the local market. It was an adapt-or-die moment, and that’s when The Grower’s Exchange went online.

“When we first got on the Internet, we replicated a typical garden center,” White says, noting that they continued selling everything from houseplants to perennials, but quickly learned it wasn’t working. “You can’t market that many topics on the Internet. We knew we had to specialize.”

That’s when the Whites turned to search engine optimization (SEO). Simply put, SEO is a means of increasing a website’s visibility in a search engine’s unpaid results pages. When someone searches for “flower shops in Flint, MI,” for example, garden center owners in Flint want their websites to appear at the top of the first page in the Google results.

The Grower’s Exchange worked with SEO consultants to help determine what the online shop should sell. What the consultants found was that the herb category was not well-represented. This was exciting news. Not only had the Whites been growing and selling herbs for years, it was their favorite category.

“We got rid of everything else, focused on selling herbs, and it was the smartest thing we did,” White says.

While the store moved entirely online, The Grower’s Exchange did maintain one relic from its brick-and-mortar past: the paper catalog. White says it’s the company’s biggest expense each year, but he bowed to popular demand. Some people prefer to take the catalog to the garden in their back pocket rather than lug a tablet — if they even have a device at all.

“It’s fundamental to the business, even in the 21st Century,” White says. “There are people who don’t want to get on the Internet. We get four to five checks every month, and it feels like they came straight out of the Stone Age.

Shipping Plants at Growers Exchange
It was a challenge at first for staff at The Grower’s Exchange to figure out the best way to ship plants. Customers expect their shipped herbs to look like they would at the local garden center, so it was important that plants arrived in good condition.

Bringing Plants To The People In A Virtual World

Most people were fine with the digital transition, but other challenges arose. For one thing, the customers weren’t exactly breaking down the virtual door.

“The one thing that’s important to remember about the Internet is that the customers don’t come to you,” White says. “You have to go get them.”

Getting the customer involves a lot of outreach, and White credits his wife and partner Kenan for leading the company’s marketing initiatives. The two work together on some of the execution, but White says the business requires someone dedicated to marketing at all times.

Another problem was getting the operation technologically up to speed and web-ready required some effort. The company grows and ships plants from its Charles City location, which White calls “the boonies.”

He says the inventory at the Charles City location is meticulous, with exact barcodes for every plant in stock. The Grower’s Exchange uses Ozlink selection software, which requires an Internet connection to UPS Worldship. While satellite Internet enables the company to process orders, it’s extremely slow and can’t support the online store. Instead, the website and customer support are run from the Richmond, VA, office located next to Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We had to tighten up our operations to be on the Internet,” White says. “The biggest problem is committing to sell a plant to a customer that we can’t ship to them. If they spend their money with us, we want to make sure we get them what they expected.”

Shipping was another obstacle when the company went online. Customers expect their shipped herbs to look like they would at the local garden center. When the herbs are treated like “a football in a box” during shipping, however, growers need to figure out the packaging. Today, White says the company’s damage rate is less than 1%.

Growers Exchange Production Schedule
It took some effort at first to get The Grower’s Exchange web-ready for online plant sales. Co-founder Briscoe White says his single biggest challenge was figuring out how to execute the precise production schedules and requirements for the varied range of plants the company sells. Photo credit: Tracy Glovier Photography

This is spectacular on its own, but it’s particularly impressive considering The Grower’s Exchange sells everything from culinary and medicinal herbs to exotic and potted herbs. In fact, understanding and executing the precise production schedules and requirements for such a varied range of plants was White’s single biggest challenge. It took him a few years to crack the code. And despite his detailed notes, Mother Nature keeps things interesting.

The Unexpected Benefit Of Adaptation

Challenges aside, White says bringing The Grower’s Exchange online saved the business from going under in 2008 when his operation was trapped between The Home Depot and Lowe’s Home Improvement locations

“It renewed my interest in greenhouse growing because it completely changed how we grow a crop,” White says. “The Internet has proved to be an incredible opportunity for connecting people with the plants I grow.”

By building an online marketplace, The Grower’s Exchange blossomed in unexpected ways. In addition to expanding its customer base to diverse people across the country, the company has benefitted from an even better exchange.

“Our communication with customers has grown exponentially with the Internet,” White says. “It’s been easier to go in-depth and explain more complicated concepts. It’s a better information exchange than we ever could have had at the garden center, and for us, that’s the most important thing.”

Topics: , , ,

Leave a Reply

One comment on “The Grower’s Exchange Unlocks The Secret to E-Commerce

More From Finance/Operations...

May 19, 2018

Westerlay Orchids Shows Its Support for Local Schools

Proceeds from all sales the company made during the Carpinteria Greenhouse and Nursery Tour will be donated to fund STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) programs.

Read More

May 18, 2018

Five Education Tracks Set for IGC Show

The event will feature topics such as online sales, store renovations, and more.

Read More
Ian Baldwin

May 17, 2018

Ian Baldwin: Why the Rise of the Under 35s Will Help Your Garden Retail Business

In his latest blog, garden retail consultant Ian Baldwin says this new generation of plant buyers is seriously engaged in gardening, and is using social media to help become successful plant owners.

Read More
Latest Stories

May 3, 2018

How Companies Can Work Together to Solve Problems and B…

Pacific Northwest Lean consortiums show what growers can achieve when they work together to solve problems and improve labor efficiencies.

Read More

April 27, 2018

Five Keys to Accurate Greenhouse Production Costing

There are several steps you can take to make sure you understand the true costs of running your business.

Read More

April 26, 2018

ForwardGro Advances Medical Cannabis in Maryland With F…

Building on roots in agriculture, this new medical cannabis facility continues to implement process improvement to provide quality medical-grade product for the patients who need it.

Read More

January 31, 2018

Online Education Empowers Employees to Succeed

See how UF/IFAS online certificate courses helped employees at Costa Farms get ahead with their jobs.

Read More

January 25, 2018

Why It’s Critical to Understand Your Real Costs o…

It’s time to stop guessing and start calculating when it comes to finding out what your real cost of production is, and pricing products accordingly.\

Read More

January 23, 2018

Learn How the New Tax Law Will Affect Your Greenhouse B…

AmericanHort will co-host a free “Comprehending the New Tax Law: webinar on Wednesday, Jan. 31, with K-Coe Isom, a national tax consulting leader.

Read More

January 15, 2018

Missouri Greenhouse Grower John Tomasovic Dies

The patriarch of Tomasovic Greenhouses & Nursery, Inc. in Des Peres, MO, was a legend in the plant industry, and widely involved in many associations.

Read More

January 15, 2018

Perennials Icon Louis Stacy Dies

The founder of the former Stacy's Greenhouses in York, SC, passed away on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.

Read More
Charlie Hall Feature Image

January 9, 2018

AmericanHort Launches New Video Series on Profit Margin…

This week, AmericanHort is kicking off a four-part video series that offers perspectives on managing profit margins from AmericanHort’s Chief Economist, Dr. Charlie Hall.

Read More

January 9, 2018

What You Need to Know About the New Tax Bill

The United Fresh Produce Association, which represents the needs and interests of fruit and vegetable growers, recently updated its members on how the recent passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act might affect their businesses. Many of the insights provided by United Fresh also apply to greenhouse growers and nurseries.

Read More
Doug Cole, Owner of D.S. Cole Growers

January 4, 2018

D.S. Cole Growers Blazes Its Own Path to Growth

Known for its commitment to sustainability and innovation, this grower is one of the pioneering trailblazers changing the way horticulture does business.

Read More

December 31, 2017

Ag Exemption for New Trucking Regulation Still Under Re…

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s trucking electronic logging device mandate, which took effect on December 18, includes an Hours of Service exemption that may or may not apply to greenhouses and nurseries.

Read More
Tillandsia Air Plants (Plantiflor)

December 15, 2017

Bonsall Nursery Devastated By California Wildfire

Rainforest Flora lost its main greenhouses and outdoor growing property in the Lilac Fire in San Diego.

Read More

December 9, 2017

Southern California Wildfires Narrowly Miss Most Grower…

Here’s an update on horticulture businesses in the areas affected by the California wildfires.

Read More

December 5, 2017

Skagit Horticulture Builds New, Inclusive Business With…

By merging two large-scale producers, Skagit Gardens and Northwest Horticulture, the new company has realized its strengths through focused divisions that emphasize efficiency and success.

Read More

December 4, 2017

Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants Debuts as Roberta’s Finali…

On December 1, Eric Wallien of Roberta’s Inc. in Waldron, IN, officially purchased C. Raker & Sons in Litchfield, MI. The new identity of the company is now Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants, according to a Dec. 1 letter to Raker’s customers, suppliers, and business partners from Vice President Susie Raker-Zimmerman. “There have been minimal changes in management and we will be providing the same products and services on which we have built our reputation in the industry,” Raker-Zimmerman said in the letter, which also announced the name change and new logo. The sale of C. Raker & Sons was announced in September . A series of events affecting Raker’s financial situation caused the need for the operation to find an alternate solution. Roberta’s had been a customer of Raker’s since 2011, and the fourth generation, family owned grower-retailer was a fan of Raker’s commitment to quality. The agreement to purchase C. […]

Read More

October 10, 2017

Sharpen Your Skills in Cost Management and Profitabilit…

The University of Florida is offering a new online course on costing and profitability. The course will take growers through the process of how to accurately evaluate cost of production, labor efficiency, pricing, and equipment investment decisions.

Read More
Willoway Nurseries Team

October 1, 2017

How Willoway Nurseries Gets Its Staff Engaged in The Co…

Willoway Nurseries in Avon, OH, is creating a culture with people who think, act, and feel like owners. Learn how its team is taking the business to the next level.

Read More