Cultivating an online presence: The gardening website that started from scratch

Lyndan Orvis discusses how his gardening company spent the last few years rebuilding its online presence, with some do's and don'ts for

In 2003 we knew we needed to have a web presence online, but back then our website consisted of one page saying who we were and what we could offer if people visited the Garden Centre – oh and how to find us! It was basic but we felt like we were visible on the internet. The following year, our IT manager started experimenting with the website and put ten products on there, just to see how the website platform worked and if we could retail from it. It wasn’t until 2006 that we received an email from our CMS system saying we had received an order. Unfortunately, the product was no longer available, but it triggered the idea that maybe we could make online retailing part of our business model.

In 2007 our e-commerce manager took responsibility for the development of the website and started the internet department. It was essential that overheads were kept to a minimum and that growth came at a sustainable rate so, to minimise the company outlay, a commission was agreed rather than a company salary to get the venture off the ground.

The early days

During the first 12 months only one member of staff ran the website and achieved a turnover of £72,000. By the end of the 2008 we had achieved sales of £350,000 and it was clear not only that the website was working for us, but also that we would need to grow the team.

The main issue we had was that with so many different areas needing to be covered, it was impossible to departmentalise; the only option was to employ someone to cover all areas and cover each other when off. Until this point that member of staff would work from home and cover emails and customer service while on holiday.

In 2007/2008 as the business was growing we made two big decisions; investing in a new website and identifying an appropriate platform to build it in and the level of investment in SEO, both total minefields. We immediately understood what SEO was and how it worked to benefit the visibility of the website, and while it was difficult to quantify the return immediately, it would have a positive effect long term, but it did require a leap of faith to invest many thousands of pounds to ultimately build links to your website.

Investing in a new website was more difficult, we had just had two years of growth and we were certain that the existing platform could keep growing our sales. But with a clear outlook we knew we would have to futureproof ourselves to stay ahead of the game and sanctioned the development of a bespoke website, not off the shelf, we wanted something unique that would portray our brand identity online. The Joomla Platform we built our website on had an incredible interface for the administrator and could offer the customers a hugely improved user experience.

Reaping the rewards

With this investment, sales continued to grow with a huge strain on the limited staff working on the website. The biggest problem was the range of tasks that need doing to run the website. These included SEO management, email and telephone enquiries, customer service issues, sales calls, chasing carriers, placing orders with suppliers, getting parcels ready for dispatch, preparing labels, populating products on the website etc. The range of jobs were so great that one person or two people could no longer do a bit of everything; it was mindblowing trying to prioritise when everything was a priority in its own context and this was extremely stressful.

It was essential we were doing things that would ensure we had turnover next quarter as well as maintaining customer service and incoming sales there and then.​ The most difficult element we struggled to do was the creative side. Adding products and creative descriptions to the website while dealing with a customer service issue or an angry delivery driver was impossible, so we made the decision to take on someone part time to concentrate on putting products on the website. The next area after a little more growth was a dedicated person for picking and packing the goods, but we were still having to cover all areas when staff were off or under resourced.

It was not until 2014 when turnover reached £1.8 million that we were able to resource up and start to properly departmentalise with cover in each department if someone was on holiday or off sick. With sustainable growth, we expanded the departments and started steps to set up a distribution centre which came together in 2015. In 2016, ten years after starting our online retailing we finally have a departmentalised e-commerce team capable of sustainable and profitable growth.

The challenge of a seasonal business

We have made a net profit every year for ten years, but it has meant walking before we run and only bringing in resources when existing ones are sustainably stretched. Product training people in this diverse sector for short-term seasonal contracts is impossible, so staff are taken on and kept on. The challenge of a seasonal business like ours is having enough staff in summer and fewer staff in winter. Keeping roles diverse over the years has been key to sustainably growing the business. In 2017 we aim to do a net turnover of £3 million and plan to launch our third new website in 11 years which will be fully integrated enabling us to expand our online offering from 5,000 products to 25,000.

With this will be huge new challenges about how we administrate, package and distribute goods effectively and cost efficiently. For the last ten years our average spend has been between £350 and today £242, meaning almost every order was sizeable. We often found that we could do the same amount of work to send out a bag of bird food at £3.99 as we did a garden bench at £300, which is why we have concentrated on high-end purchases at the cost of repeat business. Not many people repeat on luxury items.

Once we release lower-cost items we have to ensure that we do not go beyond the equilibrium point that makes our business optimal for profitability. Increasing turnover without profit is not our desire.

Lyndan Orvis is e-commerce manager at Hayes Garden World.

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