Gardening Express snaps up online rival

Chris Bonnett, the owner of online specialist Gardening Express, has acquired a start up rival to his Gardening Express brand for an undisclosed sum.

Chris Bonnett (left)
Chris Bonnett (left)

Bonnett explained that Plantstore had been set up three years ago by owners of an existing garden plant nursery to emulate the success of one of his own business units, serving the reseller market online.

Plantstore principally let others handle the online marketing and advertising and mainly provided fulfilment services to the end consumer. This was mostly through marketplaces such as Wowcher and Ebay.

He said: "Although margins in this sector of the market are normally tight, the volumes normally justify running them."

A spokesperson for the nursery that was running Plantstore stated they were pleased a deal was completed, "as we are not really online specialists, and it had impacted our main nursery an awful lot with a sudden gluts of orders". 

The online side had failed to make a profit because of the "cut-throat nature of online pricing and unforeseen costs such as returns and higher packaging and delivery costs than had been factored: "It has gone to the right people who have the skills to run it profitably, and develop it in to a proper business – you think it will be easy putting products online and selling them, but it’s a real minefield and not at all what we expected."

Also, based in Essex, Plantstore was running out of leased premises. The business was bought to Bonnett’s attention earlier this year by another reseller that felt it could represent a threat and encroach on its market. Spotting an opportunity, Bonnett swooped in and has now acquired the business.

Plantstore will remain, and continue to run as an independent business, under new ownership.

Bonnett said: "Hopefully we can bring in some expertise and experience to what had been started up very much as a ‘me too’ jump in to the market. We plan to position the brand in such a way that it does not cannibalise our existing companies trade, but enhances it through having a differentiated range in a similar way to BVG Group uses the Thompson & Morgan and Van meuwen brands. Inevitably, there is existing overlap, but we will work to ensure that product specifications are different so that resellers for both businesses maintain a differentiated offer where ever possible. There will of course be synergies in terms of core lines they are currently selling which are also some of our most successful products. Going forward this gives us an opportunity to do something a little bit different, even if that’s as simple as offering a Buxus Ball with one style of planter rather than another. I like to think of it as a baked bean factory – the labels on the cans are different, the grade of beans and sauce is different – they all come from the same factory – but the brand values, quality and price associated with each can be drastically different and targeted to different market places accordingly."

Plantstore customers will see little change on the surface immediately, although Bonnett plans to increase and diversify the range and consolidate dispatch operation to his own nursery over the summer: "We will run the brand and company completely independently for the first year or so and see how well it stands on its own two feet and also look at how we can position it going forward. Right now, it represents a mini-clone of a lot of our top selling products, but it is working with market places where our other business does not have a presence, so it will be interesting to see how we can develop it."

Plantstore is Bonnett's second acquisition this year, having already spent £1.2m on Tomlins in Essex.

He said the online market was becoming more competitive, with exchange rates also having an impact. He said more garden centres are rolling out online offers but they need to be aware that online is a different market than in-store. For instance, he said prices had to be more competitive online and volumes online had to be bigger in areas such as garden furniture.

He added that traders on Amazon had varying overheards, ranging from importing into a lock-up cheaply to all the overheads of a garden centre chain, which has economies of scale but high running costs.

Bonnett is promoting unusual plants with a good story such as the Princess Diana hydrangea, renamed from Wowtime. He is seeking hardy nursery stock and small standard trees and anything that can be used for patios. Bonnett predicts shortages of plants from southern Europe, mainly because of high temperatures there, but also as areas are shut off from trading because of xylella. he says online sellers are more flexible than bricks and mortar retailers if xylella and its exclusion zones hit the UK, because online sellers can easily move away from non-movement zones. Bonnett says polygalla is still being offered but as a prime xylella host, he expects import to the UK will dwindle. But he says palms from non-affected areas will still be available, though potentially olives could be in short supply.



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