By Tracy Ilene Miller
The nursery industry has changed over the last two decades — and so have the techniques nurseries use to sell their plant material and communicate with customers.
Some changes have been driven by technology. Nursery websites are one example. Just six years ago, only about 50 percent of small businesses — defined as those having up to $10 million in revenue — had a website. Today, that number tops 80 percent.
For many growers, full-featured websites have become an important tool that wholesale nurseries use to communicate with and better serve customers. But there are many other ways nursery sales teams are adapting to meet the challenges of today’s markets.
After all, marketing technologies and sales techniques are just a means to an end. The end goal is improving customer relationships and selling more plant material.
Paper vs. digital
One thing that has undergone extensive change is nursery catalogs. Some nurseries are changing theirs, while others have stopped printing them entirely.
Kraemer’s Nursery of Mt. Angel, Oregon, discontinued its catalog three years ago, as did A&R Spada Farms of St. Paul, Oregon, two years ago.
“I think the conversations are more electronic, emails back and forth, than what they used to be. I don’t think we’ve lost anything by not printing a catalog,” said Barry Gregory, vice president of sales and marketing at Kraemer’s.
“We would build our catalog in June for shipping in fall and spring, and many items would sell out to existing customers,” said Vinny Grasso, sales manager at A&R Spada Farms, “but you would still be committed to that list. The catalog locked you into this marketing tool.”
Giving up an elaborate 30-page, color catalog has helped A&R Spada Farms save up to $15,000 in annual printing costs and focus attention on the website as a dynamic tool for both customers and salespeople. Availability lists are updated as many as three times daily.
At Oregon Pride Nurseries (McMinnville), a printed catalog is not going away, but it is developing into something different — a product guide. This shift allows more flexibility and perhaps even better conversations and managed expectations with customers, said Mike Lee, who works in outside sales and production.
“We would have the catalog printed in May, and then you’d be talking to someone in the fall, when the product was no longer available for sale, and they’d say, ‘Well, you had it in your catalog,’” Lee said. “Conversely, you can have new things all of the sudden available, and it’s not in the catalog!”
With a product guide, up-to-date inserts can be printed for outside salespeople to use during visits with existing customers and new prospects. The guide is revised for summer and winter trade shows.
Although Oregon Pride is still finalizing the look of the guide, it will be very visual, Lee said, and include detailed information for each plant, but no size and price information, which will be printed separately. Independent garden center clients can then use the guide as a resource with their customers, without displaying wholesale prices.
“We always send out a weekly availability list,” Lee said. “So, one way or another, it’s not hard to find the prices and sizes. And they can always find the information online.”
Oregon Pride sets a minimum quantity threshold for online items to avoid disgruntled customers who order a limited-supply item only to find it sold out. Limited-quantity items can still be offered in sales calls and other ways, but not necessarily online.
Fisher Farms (Gaston) also still prints a catalog, but as a follow-up to a four-color portfolio that showcases new varieties.
“Our customers are trained to look for the new and cool and to get their order in early because that stuff sells out early,” said John Coulter, Fisher Farms general manager.
Catalogs aren’t the only sales tool.
A&R Spada Farms makes year-round use of electronic communications such as monthly e-flyers and email newsletters. These smaller, more frequent touches make for more consistent marketing, especially as they don’t preclude telephone conversations and visits by customers to the nursery or by salespeople at the customer’s location.
Actually, Grasso said, they help salespeople find additional ways to have conversations with customers.
“If you’re a salesperson on the road, you visit your customers and get an order, then how do you go back?” Grasso asked. “We do a flyer to give the salesperson a reason to call their customers” after initial orders are made. Plus, rather than using a catalog, the nursery can be more flexible with regular communications.
“Like the President’s Day Sale flyer we sent out for the entire month of February,” Grasso said. “Literally, at the end of January, we said, ‘What do we have to move?’”
Digital divide no longer
As access to broadband service has spread outside of urban centers, electronic communication has also become more pervasive. Nowadays, business is conducted 24/7.
“Technology is great, but it has also put chains around us,” Coulter said. “We don’t, as a society, relax. The expectations are if I call, you can send a picture and proposal in 15 minutes. Those are dynamic changes in just five years.”
Technology has its plusses and minuses. Fisher Farms is careful, for instance, not to display prices online to avoid creating unneeded challenges for garden centers whose customers might find the nursery in online searches.
Likewise, Lee at Oregon Pride said being online has meant less anonymity. The nursery often fields calls by the general public who wants to purchase directly from the grower, and must be redirected to retail outlets.
It’s necessary to establish boundaries on time spent outside of office hours, as well.
But then there is nothing like the technology of a smartphone to put customers almost physically at a nursery when they’re not.
“In the past I would have been carrying a camera, then it was a digital camera, and now it’s a smartphone camera,” Lee said.
With smartphones, salespeople aren’t the only ones who participate in ensuring sales. The production and inventory team at Fisher Farms are also outfitted with smartphones for taking and sending photographs. Digital images stimulate sales. When customers see the product and how it looks in real-time, many are persuaded to buy.
Smartphones also provide quick communication with customers to make extra sales. “I could be loading a truck and call a customer to say, ‘I have two feet of space. Is there anything more we can add?’” Lee said. And they do.
Achieving more with less
Technology has supplanted some of the need for salespeople to write up orders at trade shows, freeing them to network with suppliers, customers and other industry influencers. Trade show success is no longer gauged solely on the number of orders written, Coulter said. Focus has shifted to delivering a superior product experience.
“Because of technology, in today’s trade shows you are trying to create a retail-ready experience for customers, even in winter,” Coulter said, “so they can get that actual feel. You can’t get that from a flyer.”
But technology is still helping to maintain those relationships, advance sales and influence business practices.
For instance, Lee uses apps like ScanBizCards to photograph and load business card information directly into his smartphone; CamScanner, which turns a smartphone into a portable scanner that generates text-readable PDFs from photos; and Dropbox, for accessing a cache of images and files to cull from on the road, thereby allowing him to leave his laptop back at the office.
Gregory at Kraemer’s Nursery uses DemandLink, an app that provides daily access to audited POS data for box store accounts to write replacement orders and keep the inventory fresh based on each store’s sales. Salespeople can be in the store and use a tablet or smartphone to pull the existing inventory and then base orders only on customer need.
“In the old days, the stores would do inventories twice per year, and then make corrections,” Gregory said. “Now, we can do inventory on an as-needed basis.”
The information is then compiled by market and used to forecast and update production plans. “We grow what consumers are buying,” Gregory said.
Of course, that’s harder to do than it is to say, Gregory said. But the POS program provides a basis for account managers to make nuanced decisions, create orders and select product specific to each market or store.
The data DemandLink generates also provide a basis for conversations with customers to work on pricing, and to roll up the forecasts and readjustments only twice per year, rather than monthly as Kraemer’s used to do, creating greater efficiency in production plan adjustments.
“It creates less waste, less scrap and fewer specials lists with a long list of discounts,” Gregory said.
Shipping is also more efficient with the information provided by the POS system. No longer does Kraemer’s “ship less than half a shelf, which makes it easier to rack and load the product, and to receive and merchandize,” Gregory said.
No substitute for customer service
Even with all the technology, “there’s no replacement for a good, healthy conversation with your customer,” Gregory said.
He expects his salespeople to have conversations with customers and ask tough questions, and then technology can assist with developing a plan and quickly present it. “You still have to invest in the human resources to analyze and come up with a good plan and provide service. The best thing any of us can do is to know who your customer is and fill their needs.”
For instance, Kraemer’s Nursery is developing a solution to minimize care at big box stores with a nursery-built “car wash,” where the plants roll through after being racked and become completely hydrated before shipment.
A&R Spada provides a free custom-label program to independent garden centers.
“What we want to do is have the plants sell off the truck, be instantly available for sale. That results in a reorder,” Grasso said. “If you’re selling to a mass merchant and have to provide this service, why not offer it to the independent garden center?”
At Fisher Farms, they treat truckers like members of the team, providing information debriefs and amenities, including coffee, restrooms and showers.
“We try to treat them as we would like to be treated. And for that reason we get truckers who want to haul for us,” Coulter said, noting that he’s heard compliments from customers about truckers.
In the end, however, “Nothing replaces salespeople and the experience of working with customers,” Coulter said. “Your customer relies on you to be successful. You need quality people to do that. You can enhance your salespeople with web technology and other equipment, but it doesn’t replace them. Ever.”