Ever since a young Neville looked up at the rows of jars in the local sweet shop, I have been fascinated by the world of retail. Since then, the choice of what we can buy has vastly increased and we have greater variety in how we buy. The challenge in horticultural retail is the same as it is for all businesses where the consumer is key — adapt to change and offer ideas that benefit both the customer and ourselves.
Online shopping has become a global phenomenon, but this has not seen the death of the high street to the extent that the doomsayers predicted. This is largely due to two main factors that actually can be to the advantage of garden centres and horticultural businesses. Firstly, many people still want to see and touch an item before they buy. Secondly, it can be difficult to deliver many items without damage, and at a time convenient to the consumer.
Most businesses in our sector now have an online presence and many also have an online shopping facility, but it is hard to compete with established giants such as Amazon or B&Q. Online sales are, of course, a source of potential profit and most customers expect it to be a part of established retail businesses, but this is not where the most substantial growth lies for garden centre retail.
Live plants are difficult to deliver and many associated products such as compost, garden furniture and tools are heavy so have prohibitive delivery costs. But the attractive middle option between traditional and online shopping known as "click-and-collect" is a model that could suit the garden industry very well. We sell products that are attractive and seductive but often difficult to load into baskets or trolleys. A service that allows you to choose and pay, either in or out of store, before the item is loaded into your car has real benefits.
Click-and-collect has seen huge growth. John Lewis, for example, processes six million such orders a year. Studies suggest that by 2017, 76 per cent of online UK purchases will be completed through this method. Stores need only ensure stock is ready for collection and help the customer to load or collect the goods, with neither party incuring substantial delivery costs.
Is it something that could work in your business? Let’s consider some of the practicalities and issues involved. This will help you to do the all-important cost-benefit analysis before making an informed decision.
Getting systems in place The right software and internet technology will be vital so research the costs and practicalities of systems provided by specialists such as Nitrosell and Collecttec.
Accuracy of stock control, sales, collection times and price points will be crucial, as will developing and maintaining your user-friendly website. Stock sold on the shop floor will need to be linked into the click-and-collect stock control to maintain accurate data.
Getting the ‘click’ You will still need to present your products on and offline in the most seductive way possible. Online photographs need to be clear, fresh and appealing. Your actual store will still be the showroom, so theatre, display and quality are paramount. Can customers sit on your garden furniture, for example, or smell the scent of a rose they may select later?
Clicking opportunities Argos pioneered the "select and collect" concept, at first by getting us to use a tiny pen and slip of paper. It now provides iPads for use to order an item for collection in store as well as its online shopping click-and-collect from home. Longacres similarly provides kiosks with mobile devices in designated areas of the car park for customers to order, pay and have the item delivered to their cars. Could such on-site ordering work for you? I would like to see a few click-and-collect iPads in garden centre coffee shops.
Collection times/points Your garden centre opening hours might not be convenient for all your customers, so can you offer an alternative collection point? I frequently use tube station car parks and have noticed that many supermarkets have now established a secure locker-type facility in the car park. Perhaps you could consider such a facility in your car park for smaller purchased items. It is easily done. After all, if farmers can use vending machines outside their farm gate to sell fresh milk surely there is an opportunity in a garden centre car park.
Depending on your size, a designated area for collection on your site is also important for efficiency, and this will need its own staffing and storage facility.
Staffing and labour costs When they install electronic point of sale, many garden centres report that labour costs have gone up. Developing a click-and-collect offer will be the same — you will incur additional labour costs. But this can be an investment if the new service attracts enough new custom and does not just take regular customers away from your shop floor sales. Do you have staff with IT skills? Who would be in charge of the website? How many new staff would you need to employ and what training would they need? Also consider your ongoing administration costs.
Charges Many retailers charge for click-and-collect orders, particularly if they are under a certain value. What will be your minimum order for free collection?
Range Will you offer your entire range in your click-and-collect service? That may be impossible. How could an independent garden centre put more than 10,000 SKUs online with good images? The manpower cost in doing this would be phenomenal, so perhaps you should consider offering a click-and-collect service on a certain range.
Your cost-benefit analysis will balance potential expenses versus potential advantages and might produce a break-even scenario. If it stops customer erosion and prepares the business for future changes in shopping habits, it is probably still worth doing.
Establishing the venture as a separate cost centre is also an option — making sure that costs including a proportion of your overheads are accurately apportioned to the venture — and one that could see the project develop with more energy and enthusiasm because there is a sense that it needs to "sink or swim".
Customer experience and satisfaction, as with traditional shop floor selling, of course needs to be the most important thing. Retailers that have made click-and-collect successful are those with strong leadership and passion about delivering superior service. If it cannot be done well, do not do it at all. It may be called click-and-collect, but most customers will not expect to load that heavy bag of compost into the car boot themselves.
Click-and-collect looks set to stay and will probably evolve further. However, a new consumer generation is emerging that will expect and assume choice, convenience and flexibility as part
of their shopping experience.
Neville Stein is managing director of business consultancy Ovation