PORTLAND — As Tom Fessler thought about the future of his family’s nursery, he couldn’t help but notice the growing importance of ecommerce to the overall retail industry.
“The millennial generation, that’s how they buy things, so we want to get a hold of them,” said Fessler, co-owner of Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas in Woodburn, Ore.
Earlier this year, the nursery agreed to become one of five wholesale suppliers to Bower & Branch, an online seller of nursery stock.
Fessler said he expects the site to be a long-term investment for his family’s company and doesn’t have “grandiose ideas” about an immediate sales surge, but would be satisfied if Bower & Branch eventually comprised 10 percent of its revenues.
“I don’t think it’s going to eliminate garden centers,” he said. “I think it’s going to be in addition to that.”
About 85 garden centers have signed up as members of Bower & Branch, serving as the “last mile provider” of care for plants before they’re picked up by customers, said Sid Raisch, the company’s president and CEO.
The arrangement earns retailers a commission while increasing the selection of plants they offer without saddling them with a larger unsold inventory, said Raisch, who recently gave a presentation on the topic at the Farwest Show in Portland, Ore.
Bower & Branch has found that roughly 50 percent of its sales come during hours that garden centers aren’t typically open, showing there’s a demand for ecommerce in nursery stock, he said.
“People are now expecting to buy that way, and that’s a big driver,” Raisch said. “Our industry cannot hold back people’s desire to buy that way.”
The company aims to expand its decentralized “supply and distribution model” — under which its trucks deliver online orders to garden centers for pick-up — to additional retailers and wholesale suppliers, he said.
If consumers choose to pay for a direct delivery, rather than pickup at a retailers, that’s an also option for most plants.
While venture capital or private equity firms would expect to quickly reap a high return on such a investment, Bower & Branch instead relies on companies experienced with the seasonality and other vagaries of selling nursery stock, Raisch said.
“It’s an effort within the industry to create this, as opposed to outsiders from other industries,” he said.
Ornamental plants pose unique challenges for ecommerce because the product is highly perishable — requiring regular light and water — and prone to losing its blooms and other quality markers during transport, said Robin Cross, an agricultural economist who’s studied the nursery industry.
“You can’t store them in an Amazon warehouse for three months in a box, then ship them,” Cross said.
Using the traditional “nursery to garden center” distribution method would seem to solve this problem, though retailers such as Amazon have made inroads with smaller, easily shippable plants, such as cactuses, he said.
Pulling individual orders for online buyers may be challenging for growers, but the problem would be mitigated as they build scale, Cross said.
The nursery industry is also highly adaptable and flexible in assembling orders, with some companies pulling from as many as 2,700 different varieties, he said.
Bower & Branch pays growers more for putting together complicated orders and has also developed a way for them to deal with smaller orders, Raisch said. “We help them with that because we’ve been through that before.”
Raisch said nursery producers shouldn’t think they “have to” get involved in ecommerce, but rather that they “get to” take advantage of a new opportunity.
“The greatest cost is not having a sale,” he said.