E-commerce sales of plant material as a percentage of total plant sales exploded over the pandemic and have continued to grow. According to research funded by the Horticultural Research Institute, the growth of plant e-commerce sales is here to stay and will continue to substantially increase.
I had the opportunity to view a presentation on this research and wanted to share my high-level takeaways and insights based on this important marketing data. A growing trend is more people are purchasing plant material across multiple sales channels. Consumers are researching products and making purchases across multiple platforms including in-store, online and social media options. They are also going beyond traditional word of mouth and utilizing reviews, social media and other forms of proof to validate their purchases. Google has conducted similar research across all types of products and their data confirms this trend.
Only a small percentage of plant buyers purchase exclusively online, with the majority purchasing across multiple channels. Customers who predominantly purchase plants online spend three times what predominantly in-store purchasers spend online.
Online plant purchasers still make about 30% of their purchases in-store. However, it is important to understand and adapt to the fact that online buyers purchase more plant material and related products overall than traditional in-store purchasers.
Impact of social media
Social media has had an increasing influence over plant purchases overall, and online sales through these channels are increasing. With the predominant platforms being Facebook and Instagram, newer platforms are having an increasing impact especially among younger shoppers. It is apparent that social media will continue to grow in its influence on online plant purchases.
It is no surprise that younger people tend to learn about products, follow plant brands and make purchases through social media and online. As it turns out, there is an inverse relationship between age and online engagement. The weighting of engagement online is towards younger and first-time plant buyers, with engagement decreasing among older buyers.
It is important to understand that the number of first-time plant buyers on social media is higher than other platforms. This is because they tend to learn about new things and get engaged in this way. Related to this, there is a general trend towards product purchases being driven on social media through FOMO (fear of missing out).
In the plant world, this purchasing trend is enhanced by either a real rarity or a perceived one. It is apparent that the excitement of scarcity or rarity of a plant drives sales. Online retailers who have understood this trend have greatly benefitted by using promotion or advertising that enhances this perception of rarity and scarcity as this drives purchases.
More parents are shopping online than other households. Online plant retailers have benefitted by targeting these family purchases through unique plant products or solutions, and by using imagery that supports a family purchase experience. For example, grow kits for kids or educational plant experiences are becoming increasingly popular with families.
An interesting insight from this research is that online plant purchases address a more predominantly ethnically diverse audience than in-store shoppers. I think this presents an important opportunity to embrace and engage a potentially new and lucrative consumer base for plants. Engaging these new consumers through online marketing efforts could yield new clients and related sales.
In-store vs. online
It is not an “either/or” question anymore, as consumer plant purchasers are trending toward utilizing more of their purchase options. It is becoming more likely that in-store purchasers will buy online. While purchase trends are shifting, one advantage that in-store plant sales have over online options is that in-store buyers are much more likely to make impulse purchases. So, those marketing for in-store customers need to enhance and take advantage of these impulse purchase experiences. Based on my experiences with my clients, I think garden centers may be able to capitalize on both trends by creating a crossover experience between online and in-store marketing.
Just like in-store retailing, online retailing benefits from presentation and by categorizing plants by common needs. For example, categories like pet-friendly, easy-care, low-water or deer-resistant help online consumers find the products that fit their needs.
A quick tip related to this is to do keyword research to find out what consumers are looking for regarding the plants being sold. Use these searches for characteristics to tag your online plants appropriately. This tagging has greatly enhanced purchasing experiences and sales.
Making sure your overall online experience creates a positive and convenient experience enhances perceived value and loyalty. The quality of online plant retailing has increased greatly over the last four to five years and consumer expectations for their shopping experience have increased in tandem. Presentation of plants, as well as the overall feel of a shopping experience, increasingly matters. It is important to take care when creating visual cues and settings for online plant pictures while creating a unique and seamless plant buying experience.
This research supports that an often overlooked but major part of this enhanced experience is smooth online checkout. Based on checkout experiences I have worked on, it is important to decrease transactional friction by decreasing steps, creating clear visual cues, easing payment processes and considering deferred payment options. The best online plant retailers test their checkout system often and continually refine it.
Keeping customers coming back
Another important takeaway is that customer and brand loyalty is higher among online shoppers. These shoppers are more likely to buy again once they have made their initial purchase. However, they are more discerning shoppers that are more likely to look at online reviews or social proof before engaging with a new store for plants, and they will often sort their plant purchases within a store based on ratings.
Online buyers are loyal, with 90% of online purchasers buying that way again. Purchasers buy through multiple platforms, but the predominant options are Amazon and Farm Direct. Garden centers were noticeably not predominant as an online resource.
My opinion and my own research in this area indicates that this is because of the resources, focus and time garden centers give to their online endeavors.
For example, in a small national survey I did of garden centers that provided online sales, the results were mixed. The garden centers that had dedicated the appropriate time and resources to their endeavors were highly successful. The garden centers who understood their multichannel advantages did very well at leveraging these experiences into more sales overall.
Unfortunately, the garden centers that did not do this were more numerous and did not do well. I believe that if appropriate resources and attention are allocated, online sales present a unique multi-channel opportunity for garden centers that can be realized in the upcoming years.
Online plant sales and social media marketing are going to continue to be growing forces in our industry. We would all do well to take note and make changes to embrace these growing opportunities in the green industry.
From the August 2023 issue of Digger magazine | Download PDF