Q: I own a small amenity nursery, producing shrubs and herbaceous plants on a wholesale basis. How can I attract more local customers without spending a lot of money?
A: I understand that you operate a wholesale business and it would be difficult to reconcile the costs of ensuring your premises were suited to the general public. The provision of toilet facilities, extra safety factors and employing sales staff would not guarantee sufficient additional income. The ability to be able to close the gates for a few hours each week to run errands and collect/deliver plants is important because you have to fit in other business factors besides selling your produce. In common with hundreds of small firms - sole operators - you are limited in your ability to maintain standards and promote additional sales.
First of all, you need to analyse your existing customer base. Identify the numbers and sizes of each firm - landscape, local authority, garden designers, maintenance businesses, etc - include their current sales record, say, over the past three years, noting how recently they have visited and made a purchase. Note too the value of their custom and create a top-20 customer chart based on sales. Once you have produced that record, you can track their sales progress, moving up and down the chart. This information will be completely bespoke to your business and your customers' transactions with you, enabling you to see precisely where, when and what you sell to these individual customers.
If possible, create three top 20s - total sales value, number of visits and average spend. This should enable you to see where your sales are going. One large order placed two years ago may skew your records if you simply look at sales value alone. A high number of visits resulting in a modest sales figure may or may not indicate a valuable customer, unless you can relate the figures to the size of the firm.
Next, you should produce a plant stock list. I appreciate that many nurseries have neither the time nor the energy to produce a yearly catalogue, but it is important to provide would-be customers with your latest produce schedule. This may take the form of a simple list that you can email as required. Ensure that it is up to date because there is nothing more annoying to a potential customer than placing an order only to be informed that the plants are no longer available.
This simple reactive marketing will be of limited value because you are servicing existing customers only. You need to be looking at becoming more proactive in seeking to expand your client base and in order to succeed you should to reach out to those potential customers who have not used your services in the past.
Begin your market research by listing all local landscapers, garden businesses and garden designers, creating your own database via telephone directories, trade associations and online facilities, targeting those companies to which you would like to sell. Do not forget local parish magazines. These often contain details of smaller firms that may otherwise be overlooked.
Once you have your target list, send them an introductory letter highlighting your chosen specialities or perhaps requesting that they send you their personal favourites. Also ask whether you can supply them with prices for any planting projects they may have in the pipeline.
If you are able to provide such a service, why not offer to overwinter or maintain their plant selection until they are ready to use the stock? Could you offer a delivery service, perhaps even batches at a time, direct to site? Obviously, this facility will carry a charge, but relatively few contractors have the space or facilities to hold and maintain plant stock and by becoming a team player in the process of a contract you will not only sell plants but also your time and expertise.
At certain times of the year, send out a list, perhaps with photographs, either by mail or email, showing your current stock under the heading: "Looking good now." So many contractors who are not plantspeople require a visual impact for their planting schemes and if they are able to supply a batch of plants in full flower or colour to their customers, the quality of the planting plan is not your concern - you are simply selling your most attractive stock while it is still showy.
Similarly, a schedule of proposed seasonal stock - such as hedging plants, either bare-root or container-grown - could also be sent out, requesting orders or possible orders to be made known as early as possible so that you can provide the plant material in a timely manner.
What you are aiming to build up is a two-way relationship, with frequent contact between yourself and your customers. You may extend your services to include buying in stock that you would not normally hold - offering a plant-sourcing element as well as providing your own stock. A one-stop shop for plant seekers.
I appreciate that this may incur costs that you would rather not have, but an element of common sense and good business practice should ensure that you are not paying external suppliers until you have been paid. Become as valued to your customers as they are to you.
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Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management - www.tsogm.org.