Hard work and clever social media use helped growers diversify into direct sales during pandemic
As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of all invention” and this phrase certainly rings true when it comes to the determination and creativity that some growers have put into their businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, discusses Rachel Anderson.
Arguably, we all owe a lot of gratitude to those businesses in our communities who’ve gone out of their way to cheer us up during the pandemic. My local pub, for example, has set up a local pizza delivery service and supports Guinness Cab. This sees black cabs deliver and pour fresh pints of draught Guinness and beers at people’s door from a converted black taxi. Cheers!
Another business that has utilised a black cab during the pandemic is Surrey-based Woodlark Nurseries. Like many bedding plant growers this time last year, its spring stock had nowhere to go because garden centres had to close. Graeme Edwards, production director of Woodlark Nurseries, recalls: “It was the most important time of year, with our most valuable crop. With the prospect of losing a large inventory and over a million pounds of revenue, I decided to look into selling plants directly to the public through an online store and home delivery.”
Graeme and Colin Edwards from Woodlark Nursery
Woodlark Nursery set up a website on the e-commerce platform, Shopify. Graeme says: “It was incredibly easy when we got going.” The team then used the Woodlark Facebook page to target local Facebook groups – a strategy that proved to be hugely successful.
Graeme says: “As we moved into warmer months, with everyone stuck at home, we knew it was important for people in lockdown to be enjoying their gardens and outdoor spaces. Supplying the community became our company’s focus. Through our bombardment of social media groups and recommendations from customers to their friends and family, our customer base quickly grew. Staff picked the plants, but we needed drivers to deliver them.”
“To keep up with demand, we employed lots of friends who had lost their jobs to the pandemic. One friend, a black cab driver, even delivered [the plants] in his taxi.”
Happily, the Woodlark team was able to save the business and the jobs of its staff. It was also able create new employment opportunities and help improve community spirit. I’ll raise my glass to that.
Merseyside-based Happy Plants also began what it refers to as its Improvised Survival Strategy with a Shopify website. “It was chaos,” recalls director Natalie Porter. “We had 150 orders on day one, before word of mouth even spread. We kept having to toggle the web shop open and shut, announcing the next opening like Glastonbury tickets with a countdown clock.” She and Graeme both note that they were able to sell their plants at a higher price than if they were selling to their wholesale customers. Happy Plants set up a minimum order value of £10 an item (so pack bedding was sold in bundles of 4 x 6 pack), a maximum of 12 products at a time, and a minimum order value of £30 (with all deliveries free within ten miles).
As Happy Plants’ small fleet of drivers couldn’t keep up with demand, it cleverly evolved its home delivery system into a Covid-safe click and collect service; namely, Happy Plants Drive Thru. This, says Natalie, proved to be significantly less labour-, fuel- and admin-intensive for the firm. “We could accommodate 12 customers per 15 minutes – 48 per hour and around 400 per day (9 to 5).” The initiative had a “hugely positive” effect on local opinion of the company, says Natalie.
Cheerfully, both nurseries are continuing these new parts of their businesses. Graeme reveals: “We have managed to build up a solid following last spring and are seeing customers return who bought from us last year.”
Whilst we hope that the current lockdown will be the last, other growers can certainly draw inspiration from the way these two growers turned lemons into lemonade (although mine’s a gin and tonic, please). And those growers who’d also like to advertise on Facebook can follow Graeme’s tips:
- Have a clear Facebook banner, as this is the first image customers see when on the page
- Join community group pages and use these to let people know what you are offering (and include a link to your website)
- Utilise Facebook’s stories feature to post regular deals and updates
- Post daily updates to ensure your business stays on customers’ timelines. To save time, several posts can be created at the same time and then scheduled
- Choose your vocabulary carefully to better connect with customers (eg “community” rather than “customers”)
- Post videos of your products using the free app “iMovie” because posts that include videos enjoy increased engagement
- Target age ranges and location buy choosing to pay for “boosts” (these gain a larger reach than non-boosted posts)
- Use the Facebook ad centre, where videos or images from your page can be used to created adverts that target a specific audience
- Maintain a dialogue with customers – respond to every review or comment
- Running competitions that require users to “like or share” your posts will create a wider reach for your page.
Graeme and Natalie were speaking earlier this year at the British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) spring online conference. A video of their presentations, ‘New Gardeners, New Markets,’ can be viewed on YouTube.