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ARTICLE Business TipsApril 14, 2016

Q&A with GardensOnline: Greening Australia one click at a time

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Bob Saunders and his partner, Annie, launched their e-commerce gardening business back in the days of CD-ROMs and the very first days of the web. Their first iteration took nine months to build and broke a lot of new ground for the garden market. Now, with a mature business model, trade is thriving.

When did the business open?

In March 2000.

What was the impetus for opening an online business?

I owned a multimedia development company and I saw that e-commerce was starting to take off. We needed to get into that segment of the market, so we built a demonstration site to show clients. I chose gardening as it was a topic close to my heart. It looked great, was making sales and attracting significant traffic. We didn’t have the heart to dismantle it. GardensOnline started as simply as that!

How was the business in those early days?

Traffic was good initially, but sales were slow to establish. The traffic response was positive for one very important reason – we were always half editorial and half shop and that was a very key decision that we made at the time because we cross-promote between the two. I was originally inspired by Amazon as it does so much in the way of book reviews; people would go to the site to read the reviews and then buy the books. In the late 90s I thought that was a great business model.

How has it gone since then?

In the early days customer trust – handing over your credit card details – and bandwidth were the biggest stumbling blocks. We had to have tiny pictures because people just didn’t have the bandwidth. Around 2006 things improved and e-commerce really started to gain some traction. We had a mature business already so it could really take advantage of the new sense of ‘trust’. 

Has having the SecurePay payment gateway been helpful in making the whole shopping cart end of the business run smoothly?

We’ve used SecurePay pretty much from the beginning. It’s been really important to have it – it has helped us build trust with our customers and has made things very simple for us. We love that we can control things like doing instant refunds. It means we can really look after our customers.

How do you structure the business?

We made another critical decision early on, which was to adopt the ‘drop-ship’ business model. That means we don’t hold stock – we take an order online and we pass it to a supplier who ships the order to the customer. It’s now quite a popular model, but at the time it didn’t even have a name. We started with three or four suppliers who were happy to come on-board and we now have 30. As soon as a transaction is approved, our system automatically generates and sends a purchase order and a shipping docket to the supplier. It’s a very ‘hands-off’ way of doing business.

The website is fantastic – do you have a large team working on it?

It’s my wife and me full time and then we have three others who work with us when needed; two on the website design and coding and one on social media. I play the writer, photographer, film-maker role myself. It’s a big undertaking, but we are very organised and process driven – you have to be.

What are your most popular products?

Plants only make up about 15 per cent of our sales. We try to provide some unusual things for the home and garden and our biggest-selling item by far is a plastic tube that goes around young plants and provides protection and drip-feeds water to the plant. You don’t find it in many shops. We make videos for the website and the video we’ve made on that product has really helped to sell it. We’ve sold tens of thousands of those.

Where are you customers from?

It’s 55 per cent metropolitan, 45 per cent rural. It’s all about convenience, with customers enjoying browsing a large range of products from their desktop, regardless of where they live.

How do you package plants for delivery?

When our supplier started working with us they had to get special packaging made, but now a lot of people ship plants and you can buy pre-made post packs in which you can secure the pot. We also have smaller packs for herbs. 

How do you ship them?

That’s up to each supplier, but I’d say about 80 per cent of our products go Australia Post. 

Interstate quarantine laws

Australia has some strict quarantine laws and anyone who sells plants has to be aware of these laws, says Saunders. “Each state has its own quarantine authorities and they can impose some large fines if you transgress their laws. Various plants are always on the list and some plants come up at particular times because there’s been an outbreak of a disease within a state. They have manuals online that are updated each month and you have to stay abreast of those.”

There are some plants that can’t be shipped interstate. “Especially to Western Australia, which is the strictest state,” reveals Saunders. “We have to put an alert on the plant product page to inform our customers that the particular plant can’t be shipped to WA or Tasmania, for example.”

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