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.
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.
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%.
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.”