by Sally Colby

Creativity is the key to eye-catching displays, and owners of nurseries and garden centers have become a bit more creative to determine the best way to remain open and offer no-contact sales.

Jill Vanduyvendyk, of Dutch Growers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said the garden center has offered online sales for two years, but the current situation has forced them to accelerate the process.

“One thing we had to change was the categories on our website,” said Vanduyvendyk, adding that an on-staff photographer pulls and photographs items for the site. “You have to think more like the customer – they’re no longer browsing by color or varieties. They’re looking for plants that are safe for pets or for sun or shade. Make sure you’re thinking of your customer that way and organize it on your website differently. We are constantly changing our website to adapt to customers so they aren’t frustrated.”

Each department has its own picking station where employees select ordered items and place them into bins. When the order is complete, it’s moved to the no-contact curbside pickup area and customers are notified their orders are ready. When customers arrive, they are directed to park in numbered spots in the parking lot and call a phone number to notify staff. Vanduyvendyk said when the garden center becomes busier, an employee will be stationed in the parking lot with a walkie-talkie to take customers’ information and relay it to inside staff for faster service.

Vanduyvendyk said many people want no contact at all, not even direct delivery to their vehicle. “We bring out a crate with their items in it. They take the items out of the crate and put them in their vehicle, then put the crate back on the table,” she said. “If it’s a cart full of items, the cart is rolled out beside the vehicle, the employee walks away, the customer empties the cart into car and the employee retrieves the cart.”

Customers at Dutch Growers use a credit card by phone to complete transactions, and in the store, staff wear gloves because they handle money. After each transaction, cashiers remove and dispose of gloves and immediately sanitize the counter.

Ben Polzin, owner of Down to Earth Garden Center in Eau Claire, WI, describes his business as a retail garden center that offers landscaping along with a café and a boutique.

“We got our background in online e-commerce from the boutique about a year ago,” said Polzin. “We knew what we wanted and how we wanted it to work.”

Polzin said putting inventory online has required a lot of work, and the task isn’t complete. “We’re working toward that every day,” he said. “We try to add 200 to 300 items daily.” Down to Earth is currently adding annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs, along with some hard goods, to online offerings.

With 100 orders coming in daily, Polzin had to determine how to most efficiently pull orders and deliver products to customers. “The other thing we’re doing is personal shopping,” he said. “We use Facetime, Messenger, text or email. People can send pictures of what they’re looking for, or if they see something on our social media they can purchase that through a link we email to them.”

For curbside pickup, Polzin asks customers to open the trunk or the back of the vehicle upon arrival. The order is brought out, placed in the trunk, the employee walks away and the customer closes their vehicle. Polzin emphasizes the importance of having the entire team on board with the no-contact concept to make sure they know what will be involved.

Polzin said the average sales ticket is up, which he attributes to people purchasing more at one time. “The number of tickets is down compared to what our visits would be,” he said. “The average ticket is around $75, which is higher than it would normally be this early.”

Jennifer Moss, director of sales and marketing at Moss Greenhouses in Jerome, Idaho, started online sales with curbside pickup and delivery service this spring. While Moss is primarily a wholesale business that supplies to small, independent businesses, they also have a significant retail portion and are considered a destination.

“Online ordering is very new for us,” said Moss. “We had to figure out how to do it quickly and efficiently. We wanted it to be extremely user-friendly.”

Moss said the goal in creating an online, no-contact process was to keep it simple and fast. Customers shop online, and as soon as they finish and submit the order, Moss receives the order via an email form. The form allows the customer to add notes and make special requests, and offers two options – delivery or store pickup.

When a form is received, one of Moss’s garden experts calls the customer, discusses their needs and sends photos or information to the customer to confirm what they want. After confirming the order, the customer’s credit card is charged, and the customer can either pick up at the store or request delivery.

Moss designated a pickup location that wouldn’t interfere with front door traffic. The pickup area has large spray-painted numbers to make it easy for customers to communicate their location to an employee. As customers pull in, they call and provide store personnel with their name and vehicle type. An employee can roll a cart out and hand items to the customer, or the customer can load the items.

For personal shopping, an employee is assigned to take an order and go to the greenhouse to initiate it. There’s no charge for the service at this point, but Moss said that might change as the season progresses. Moss doesn’t charge for pickup orders, but has established a minimum order and delivery fee.

In the retail store, six-foot marks on the floor indicate appropriate social distancing, and surfaces in the store are continually sanitized. “They’re chomping at the bit to get out here,” said Moss, describing customers. “People feel that greenhouses are very safe places, so to protect our staff, everyone is outfitted with a mask and have gloves available, either garden or disposable gloves.”

Moss said they’ve gained quite a few new customers, which means more beginning gardeners who need guidance. “They need to be walked through the process,” she said. “That led us to do a weekly online Q&A session. We’re constantly monitoring Facebook – there are about four of us looking at it at any given time. We’re currently working with University of Idaho Cooperative Extension to develop projects that can be done online and shared.”

With some creativity, flexibility and working with employees to share ideas, garden centers can create successful plans for the 2020 season.