Online retail sector looks ahead to Wyevale launch

Price, delivery time, easy-to-access information, quality and range are the most important areas Wyevale Garden Centres' much delayed website must concentrate on when it launches to the public in spring 2017, say online retail experts.

Wyevale is entering the transactional direct/online garden market, estimated to be worth around £300m a year to pure players, after three years of development and delays, and has launched to its two-million garden club members.

Britain's biggest garden centre chain, at 153 stores, will charge £4.99 for standard courier delivery. Some larger and heavier items will be shipped directly from Wyevale Garden Centres' "trusted partners" and incur extra charges.

Returns are available, apart from on plants "because they're perishable" unless they arrive damaged or in poor condition. Returns can be made at 5,900 Collect+ outlets.

Ian Charles, who runs Britain's biggest online garden retailer, the £40m-turnover Primrose, said: "I think they have the classic problem/advantage of a physical retailer. They need/want to charge their customers a lot of money to pay for the high costs of the physical stores and then they put up a website and some of those customers are happy to buy at those prices because they trust the retailer.

"It's a business model that still seems to work fine. Our business model is that we assume our customers are incredibly well-informed. The only way we can survive is to provide a genuinely better offering than they can find anywhere else."

Some online retailers have questioned the lack of a returns option on plants under distance selling regulations, while others say the plants range is relatively small. Price comparisons suggest Wyevale's online and in-store prices are similar, but there will be postage to add. Wyevale now has two central hubs from which to deliver.

YouGarden managing director Peter McDermott said a "challenge" for all bricks-and-mortar retailers going online is their "methodology of offering their in-store range online" and how to manage price competitiveness and supply. The customer journey is very different online, with service, price and quality all "pre-requisites". He added: "Quality and service have been the major challenges for new entrants."

McDermott said he welcomes Wyevale entering what he called a "stagnant" direct-to-consumer gardening market where there has been consolidation and where he predicts more consolidation over the next five-to-10 years. The conservative garden market has been slower than most other retail sectors to embrace online. "Some businesses have not been financially thriving in our sector and some are marginally profitable," he added. "If Wyevale brings in more (online) consumers and creates more traffic, that's a good thing. Then it's a question of where their loyalty is."

Many garden centres have "dramatically" moved from selling gardening as "the be-all and end-all" to just a "feature" over the past 10 years. The online market is also being hit by "cyclical" changes after a peak with Alan Titchmarsh's Groundforce and Gardeners' World 15 years ago. Customers are buying fewer smaller plants and more medium-sized instant ones.

McDermott added that the online consumer has never been served better and "the consumer is in a better position to make informed decisions". This means online quality, service and price are even more important.

Wyevale's multichannel director Tim Patten left earlier this year, after joining in 2014, to be replaced by Jim Clear. "To ensure our new website is truly special for our customers, we have given our garden club members an exclusive preview this week to hear their thoughts, ahead of its official launch in early 2017," Clear explained. The website features thousands of products, 130 gardening articles and 50 how-to videos.

Research has found customers are concerned that their plnts arrive healthy, plants match their website description, plants are well packaged, plants are despatched at the proper planting time, and plnts are well labelled.

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