Online retailing giant Amazon is now selling live plants throughout the USA. Will that be A Good Thing for the world-wide beleaguered horticulture industry? And what does it mean for the types of plants that will be grown in the future, their growers, and the retail nursery industry?
For many small nurseries which lack the ability to create their own online sales, signing up to partner with Amazon gives access to a new and rapidly growing market of time-poor shoppers who prefer direct delivery. Younger shoppers are also much more likely to buy something online and sight-unseen, so attracting a new younger market to buy plants will necessarily mean a move to online sales.
Nurseries receive their order from Amazon, slip the plant into a plastic sleeve to retain moisture during shipping and then box up the plants in heavy cardboard ready for UPS pick up.
Although this opens up issues with growers needing to be on top of state plant quarantine laws, more importantly it raises the question of whether plants in the future will be grown specifically, and bred specifically, for online sales.
Grower experimentation with plants that ship well shows that smaller sizes than general retail work best – around 100mm or 4 inch pots being ideal. However the selection of suitable plants and the timing of the shipping is also critical for some, especially those that flower or fruit. Two days of darkness inside a cardboard box can be enough for a flowering plant to drop all its buds, or abort forming fruits.
If online plant sales work for Amazon, then more growers will choose to grow plants that ship well, like indoor foliage plants, and also be looking for plant breeders to start concentrating on new plant varieties that can tolerate those shipping conditions and arrive looking good enough to satisfy consumer expectations.
It also means that nurseries will need to understand how to manage those consumers’ expectations, so that they are pleased with their purchase. Enticing photos of mature plant specimens will need to be replaced with realistic images of what will come out of the shipping box, as well as a comprehensive but easy-to-follow immediate and future plant care guide.
Although online plant retailing is ideal for small boutique growers with unusual and hard-to-find plants, unfortunately those are exactly the growers whose stock control can still be remembering what’s in the paddock or using paper records. They will need to digitise their stock control, and quickly, if they want to take advantage online retailing.
There is also the danger that if online sales take off, the bricks and mortar retail nurseries already doing it tough will suffer even more. As online flower buying has become more popular, the number of florists in the US dropped by a massive 37% during the decade 2000 to 2011.
As this retailing climate changes, I suspect it will be a case of adaptation or extinction.