If you sell plants from a brick and mortar store but don’t offer them online, should you?

In a webinar presented by AmericanHort, three horticultural professionals shared what they learned from a research project comparing e-commerce to in-store marketing.

“E-commerce as a percentage of total retail sales has exploded,” said Dr. Bridget Behe, professor emeritus at Michigan State University. “The pandemic threw gasoline on that fire. The trend is going to continue. We’re going to see substantial increases over the next 10 years with more sales happening online.”

Behe said more people are omnichannel shopping – both in-store and online. “Digital advertising now exceeds the sum of advertising on traditional media such as TV, newspaper, magazines and others,” she said. “The share of spend on digital advertising is going to increase along with spend in terms of e-commerce.”

The larger social media platforms have many users, and online plant sellers are using a variety of those platforms to take advantage of so many potential customers. One notable trend is that younger consumers, including first-time plant buyers, are following social media trends and shopping online.

“We are recruiting a strong number of young consumers online who may eventually come into the store,” said Behe. “Omnichannel is where the growth is, but we’re cultivating the new consumer primarily online.”

Dr. Melinda Knuth, assistant professor, horticultural science, North Carolina State University, reviewed a study funded by the Horticulture Research Institute to determine the purchasing habits of online and in-store plant purchasers.

“People who shop for plants online are spending more online in general,” said Knuth. “Consider fewer and higher margin items for the online store, keeping in mind shipping costs. Herbs, indoor foliage and annuals are highest selling plants for online purchases. If you aren’t currently in the online game, these should be the first types of plants to sell online. Annuals, indoor foliage and flowering plants are the top in-store purchases.”

Knuth said sellers should think of potential sales, either online or in-store, as separate windows of opportunity. “It isn’t in-store or online,” she said. “They exist simultaneously. In-store shoppers spend less overall but are more likely to purchase plants both in-store and online. Online shoppers spend more on plants but are not as likely to buy in-store. They’re more likely to buy more in an online store but not necessarily come to the retail establishment.”

She said it’s still important to entice shoppers to visit the physical store to cultivate impulse purchases.

Shipping is a consideration when deciding whether to sell online. For in-store shoppers, the limit is reasonable mileage to the establishment. Online shoppers have the convenience of getting exactly what they want and the market is open to whatever distance the seller is willing to ship.

Several marketing categories can help showcase online plants: pet-friendly, new arrivals and easy care all help consumers determine how a plant will fit their lifestyles.

“Where someone shops influences how they spend money,” said Knuth. “Generally, if a person buys a plant online, they will spend more. People buying online tend to spend more for seeds, flowering potted plants, indoor house plants and cut flowers.”

She added that if someone purchases an herb or an evergreen, their total spending increases when they’re in a store, which could be due to impulse buying or purchasing multiple items.

“Ultimately, the decision to sell online is what aligns with the business and products,” said Knuth. “Will your current product offering transition to an online storefront? Also, how would online versus in store impact your bottom line?”

In-store and online sales don’t have to be either/or – many people are omnichannel shopping these days.

Other considerations for online sales include the additional input costs of labor, shipping and packaging and additional employee training.

Online shoppers tend to be younger, and the average income for online purchasers is higher than that of those who purchase in-store. “Online shoppers are more affluent,” said Knuth. “They have more income, more males are shopping online than in-store, and they’re younger.”

More parents tend to purchase online – do you offer products with potential for parent-child activities? What is the ethnic diversity of your market? Are you marketing products in colors with greater appeal? Are you merchandising products that might appeal more to certain holidays and traditions?

While a company may be accustomed to a mostly female clientele, it’s important to consider that males shop online too. Consider product offerings, color palettes and backgrounds that will appeal to male shoppers.

“Use more youthful models with plants to help appeal to younger consumers,” added Knuth. “Think of what a younger consumer would like because they’re more likely to buy that.”

Unclear communication about products online comes with a cost. It’s always best to clearly communicate exactly what the customer will receive to avoid dissatisfaction. “If they go to your website and decide they don’t want the product in that form, it’s better to lose the customer at that point than to have spent the labor to package, ship to the consumer and them being dissatisfied,” Knuth said.

University of Tennessee Assistant Professor of Specialty Crops Dr. Alicia Rihn said people trust and rely on online reviews when making purchases and filter products by review ratings. A review provides honest feedback, which reduces the risk of purchasing a product.

“When people go online to shop for plants or other products, they don’t necessarily go to reviews first,” she said. “They don’t use reviews when determining what they’re shopping for, but when it comes to making a purchase, reviews seal the deal.”

The number of reviews isn’t as important as the quality of a review. “People want reviews that provide valuable information,” said Rihn. “Online plant buyers are highly likely to buy plants online again. Online reviews are more important to online buyers than in-store buyers. In-store buyers have the plant in front of them and can select the one they want; online folks are relying on the seller to select the plant.”

It’s important to remind online customers to leave reviews – it’s the e-word of mouth. However, if reviews are less than ideal, they should be monitored and addressed. Rihn suggested assigning a staff person to watch reviews and respond quickly. “As time lapses and you don’t respond, that adds to a negative experience for the customer,” she said.

Behe reiterated the need for online reviews. “Think about how your company handles reviews, how you recruit reviews and respond to both positive and negative. Consumers trust other consumers’ opinions,” she said.

In summarizing the need for plant sellers to consider online sales, Behe said, “The use of e-commerce will continue to grow, but don’t think either/or – it’s omnichannel.  We know online spending is higher on average, and price points are higher. We see higher spend online for seeds, flowering potted plants, cut flowers and flowering shrubs.”

by Sally Colby