How to Make Fertile Soil for Online Growth
Like almost every other business in the Ottawa, Canada area, Robert Plante Greenhouses (RPG) faced a challenge last spring when the government announced that non-essential businesses had to close to the public. But the news came at an especially difficult time for the nursery: RPG was ramping up for its spring and summer busy season, when the business does nearly 80% of its yearly 7-figure sales.
Shutting their doors wasn’t an option, so the nursery, which opened in 2001, decided to pivot to eCommerce, selling plants online. The shift was riven with challenges: Gardeners of any level love to see, touch, and smell what they’re buying. Could RPG create the same kind of buzz for their customers with an eCommerce website?
As it turns out, they could. With a Wix eCommerce website as the cornerstone of their digital strategy, RPG has thrived through COVID lockdowns. And even now that in-person restrictions have been relaxed—the greenhouses operate at 25% capacity—the company is still using its digital savvy to drive both online and in-person traffic. Though the spring rush has only just started, according to RPG’s media manager Colin Matassa, the retailer is “already setting records.”
Selling Plants Online: The Key eCommerce Features You Need
RPG is a good case study of how brick-and-mortar nurseries can pivot to selling plants online. Before delving into their story, and how they successfully used eCommerce tools to grow their business, lets take a brief look at what some of those tools are:
1. An all-in-one eCommerce platform - Having all the necessary eCommerce tools built into the platform, or available in the Wix App Market with one click, makes launching, running and scaling an eCommerce business more affordable and easier.
2. Omnichannel sales: Selling on your own website is just one sales channel. You can reach more customers by selling plants on marketplaces like Amazon and eBay, and through social media channels like Facebook and Instagram. You can also integrate your online and in person sales with a Wix Point of Sale system (POS).
3. Pickup and delivery options: When your product is plants, you'll want to have a shipping and fulfillment app integrated with your site, but keep in mind that many customers will prefer to order online and pickup in-store or curbside, so this should also be supported.
4. Email marketing: This is a great way to let your customer base know about new plants in stock and special promotions you're running. You can run campaigns directly from your Wix dashboard.
5. Social media marketing: Having an easy integration with the Facebook and Instagram pages of your business is key for driving both paid and nonpaid traffic to your website.
How did Robert Plante Greenhouses successfully use these and other eCommerce tools to not only survive the pandemic, but to come out of it stronger than ever? Let's take a closer look below.
The Seeds of a Pivot
When Ottawa shut down non-essential businesses last spring, RPG faced the same problem as other small, family-owned companies: they didn’t know how long the restrictions would last, so whatever solution they implemented had to be sustainable.
On top of that, the nursery had another concern: Their plants. With shipments of new plants arriving daily, how could they share their updated inventory with customers who might be interested in what had arrived that day or week?
The solution involved leaning on their digital presence and using their website to drive orders that could be picked up curbside or instore. Logistically, the transition to allocate different pickup options was straightforward, especially because of the eCommerce shipping options on their website.
Once a customer was ready to buy, the process was seamless. Shoppers could pay online using their credit cards and start a live-chat with nursery staff if they had questions. If they abandoned their cart without purchasing, an automated email would be sent as a reminder. And after they placed an order, another automated email would solicit feedback on their customer experience. The Sales Pop App was also used to create urgency and boost sales by showing website visitors what others had recently purchased.
Ensuring customers knew what was available in real-time was another challenge. The website, which saw an 856% jump in unique visitors in one month, between March and April 2020, would have to be constantly updated, a responsibility that fell to Colin Matassa. “The Wix App is really helpful because it can upload pictures of your products quickly and easily,” he says.
To navigate RPG’s hundreds of plants, Matassa organized the website into categories like evergreens, seeds and bulbs, and succulents and cacti, which allowed customers to filter by the most recently listed offerings. He also enabled one-click sharing via WhatsApp, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter so excited plant enthusiasts could start a conversation about their prospective purchase.
When customers picked up their order, they were encouraged to inspect it to make sure they were satisfied, which helped bridge the digital and physical customer experience. In the rare case that a refund was needed, it was completed using Stripe, which integrated seamlessly with Wix.
Because of these features, RPG’s customer base was more than happy to make repeat visits to the nursery, which RPG knew because of their website analytics dashboard. “Looking at our top customers over the past year, some of them have spent $3,000 to $5,000 dollars and put in 30 to 45 orders,” says Matassa.
Expanding Their Reach
RPG quickly realized that many first-time plant buyers were discovering the greenhouses through Instagram. In fact, they could see the traffic coming from Instagram to their website in real time. “We’d post a photo of a new plant online at 8pm, and it’d be a mad rush,” says Matassa. “You’d see the number of users on the website skyrocket, with everyone trying to buy the plant.”
With Instagram being a vital sales pipeline, RPG wanted to use it strategically. So, they created a link tree that directed users to the five most-trafficked parts of the website: driving directions to the site, business hours, FAQs, gift card purchase, and their newsletter.
In their pinned Instagram stories, they provided even more relevant information for customers, including the pricing details for local delivery with a picture of how to select that option during check-out, a map of the coverage area for their delivery partner, Plant Runz, and the procedure for curbside pick-up, including the number to call upon arrival.
For the rest of their social media, RPG used this same strategy of creating content that generated excitement and then driving traffic to their website. For example, they posted high-resolution plant photos on their Facebook, along with practical captions for prospective buyers: “We’re happy to have lots of beautiful micans back in stock—we’ve been waiting a few months for them! We have lots in stock so there is enough to go around. Available in a 4” pot for $29.99.”
Using Facebook Ads by Wix, which uses Wix’s powerful machine-learning algorithm to continually optimize ads, RPG generated an incredible 2,566% return on its monthly spend. From their dashboard, they also learned important analytics and gained valuable data insights about their target audience. For example, 84% of customers who purchased from Facebook Ads were under 44 years of age.
And their newsletter was no different. Before the pandemic, Matassa says it “had never been a focus” and had roughly 300 subscribers. Now, “it’s a priority,” and has grown to 6,000 people. Email marketing was an especially valuable tool to talk to customers who may not be on social media; they could inform them directly about upcoming sales and special events, greenhouse updates, contests, and new plants. (The newsletter is in both English and French to cater to RPG’s multilingual customer base.)
All these business strategies have paid off: RPG is fulfilling 400 to 500 orders a day even as COVID restrictions begin to lift.
As things started to slowly reopen in Ottawa, the clamor of customers asking about in-store visits began to rise. “We are getting a ridiculous amount of phone calls asking if we are still open due to COVID,” says Matassa. Knowing how valuable information had been to their customers on social channels and newsletters, Matassa went about adapting their website to reflect the changing situation around COVID.
Once you land on the page, the first thing you see is a pop-up: “WELCOME TO ROBERT PLANTE GREENHOUSES!” it says. “NOTICE: Yes, we are OPEN! We remain open for in-store shopping at 25% capacity 7 days a week from 9am to 4pm.”
For visitors who may need a gentle reminder as they browse, this information is easily visible everywhere on the site, with a banner at the top listing the business hours, “contact us” links at the top and bottom, and the physical address and hours of operation at the bottom.
Now, according to Matassa, about 95% of business is done in-store, so that’s where RPG’s socials encourage followers to go. For example, another pinned Instagram story is of the company’s two chickens: Daisy and Douglas. It shows them eating breakfast, hiding among the dragon tails, and napping underneath the nursery tables, an irresistible pull for anyone interested in stopping by the greenhouses. In addition, RPG re-posts users who’ve tagged them with pictures of the plants they bought, encouraging others to do the same. It’s just another strategy that RPG has had to adapt on the fly as they deal with the impacts of the pandemic.
Ottawa’s COVID restrictions came just as Robert Plante Greenhouses was gearing up for its busiest time of year. But, despite the prohibition on in-person gatherings, the nursery was still able to maintain a thriving business during the spring and summer. In fact, by utilizing the eCommerce functions on their website and modifying their digital strategy to drive traffic there, they expanded their reach far beyond the customer base they had a year ago.
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Marketing Writer, Wix eCommerce
Geraldine is a native of Donegal, Ireland, and enjoys spending her time outdoors, hiking and being close to the Atlantic Ocean. She is a marketing writer for Wix eCommerce and, as a small business owner herself, loves hearing user success stories.