Now is the time to get online, with opportunities for growers to have a retail arm if they get their infrastructure right and make sure that their pricing is competitive.
Plant brand Garden Beauty has a new online plant centre, which representative Ian Ashton says he "probably should have done 10 years ago", though "people are used to using online services now so it's the right time for us".
Peter Clay, a director at established plant grower and online retailer Crocus, says there is "clearly lots of competition" but he has seen a 23 per cent sales increase in the past year - from £12.5m to £15.5m turnover.
There seems to be a migration to online from traditional paper offers. Where almost all non-bricks-and-mortar orders came via newspaper and magazine offers 15 years ago, now up to 80 per cent is ordered online.
Hayloft had an exclusive agreement with The Daily Telegraph, for instance, but Hayloft's Derek Jarman says that is over and Thompson & Morgan and J Parkers are now competing for orders via the paper. Crocus formerly had the contract but pulled out and Hayloft took over. Crocus now looks after RHS online sales as well as Waitrose.
Ashton says he has been "making sure we get the service right", adding: "It's potentially easy to get right" after putting in place the packaging and service, payment systems and website development costs. Crocus says price, speed and availability are the most important facets of an online plant offer. Ashton adds: "I wanted to look at ways retail consumers like to buy our plants they are not getting through local garden centres. Local garden centres can't stock the entire range of 700 varieties."
Garden centres may find getting price differentials right when going online more difficult, so as not to undercut retail. Wyevale Garden Centres and others are moving into online and that seems to be a catalyst for more development in the area. Ashton says everything on the nursery will appear on the website. "Everything ready for sale now has a 'buy now' tag on the website or 'we'll let you know when it's ready' tag."
On pricing, Ashton, who says Blackmoor's online offering is a good example of a nursery expanding its sales, points out that it is more expensive to buy individual plants online. "People will always go to the garden centre to get better value for single plants but if you buy a good number it's competitive. We're not trying to compete with the garden centre from a price point of view."
Crocus has more than 3,500 different plants for sale, while Garden Beauty has up to 700, which compares favourably with many garden centres.
Online retail challenges
"The challenges for growers doing online retailing are creating awareness of the site/brand," says consultant Neville Stein. "It is lower cost these days than when online retailing first started but still a lot of expertise is required with social media in order to create awareness."
- Delivery of products - live plants, particularly those in twoand three litre-pots, are very difficult to despatch and to ensure plants arrive in good condition.
- Competition - there is huge brand awareness for established e-commerce such as Crocus and Primrose plus other well-known brands offering plants online (Daily Telegraph, RHS).
- Expertise - growers will need to hire in skilled tech people to keep web sites current, updated and relevant.
- Being aware of costings - ensure that online retailing becomes a separate cost centre to identify profitability.