Coronavirus: Garden centres switch to virtual personal shopping

By Cristina Criddle
Technology reporter

  • Published
A composite image shows two video tours and two written posts / emails about gardening
Image caption,
Virtual garden tours and personal online advice is the new way of business

Garden centres and nurseries are offering online personal shopping services to reduce wastage.

Companies have been livestreaming videos of their centres and FaceTiming and emailing customers to offer advice and guidance on orders during lockdown.

The industry has warned millions of plants, shrubs and trees could be thrown out in the coming weeks.

Some 2,000 garden centres and nurseries have been shut down at what is usually their busiest time of year.

Independent traders have said that adapting business to online orders, delivery and collection is enabling them to keep up with the high demand while respecting social-distancing measures.

Now, garden suppliers are following suit.

Chessington Garden Centre has been using Facebook’s live-streaming video to showcase products available, offering deliveries from orders made on their website.

It offers a walkthrough of the centre and produce, while staff reply to questions customers have left in the comments.

“We are doing everything we can to adhere to [government] guidelines and keep people at home,” the video begins. “However... what we do want to do is encourage you out into your gardens or outdoor space.”

'Doing what we can'

Many of these businesses did not have a large online presence before and have struggled to set up websites in a short time.

“We don’t have an online shop or the time and money to set one up,” Jorge Rodriguez-Martin, manager of The Palace Gardener, in London, says. "We’ve had to lay off staff, and business has been devastated by closing our garden centre, so we are doing what we can to serve our loyal customers.”

The remaining three staff at the centre - who do not use public transport to travel to work - focus on keeping the plants alive and offering detailed advice and recommendations over emails or calls.

“It’s peak time, so people have been sending us photos of their gardens, asking what plants they should buy, and we’ve been sending photos of our stock back,” Jorge adds.

“Lots of people are ordering children’s gardening tools, looking for something to keep families busy.

“And because lots of people in London don’t have gardens, they’re ordering house plants to lush up their living rooms.”

Image source, The Palace Gardener
Image caption,
The Palace Gardener says people are sending photos of their gardens and asking for virtual advice

Alfonso Marone, UK head of technology at KPMG, says garden centres are experiencing the same kind of pressure that homeware stores did at the onset of the lockdown.

“DIY spend increased as consumers sought ways to make productive use of the self-isolation time via home improvements,” he says. “Garden centres fall neatly into this category and gardening has the added benefit of being the type of soothing activity ideal in counteracting an anxious and uncertain time."

'Phone hasn't stopped'

Jean Cottier has been running Aigburth Hall Nurseries in South Liverpool for around 10 years.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, she’s been posting photos of stock on Facebook, allowing customers to order over the phone and then collect at the gate.

“I’ve been posting almost every day, which is not a usual job for me, but it’s the only way people can see what we have in the garden,” she explains. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”

Jean requests that customers collect their orders at the front gate, maintain the 2m distance, and wear gloves.

“There’s been a huge rise in demand - people looking to grow their own vegetables or plants pansies to brighten up their windows. Gardening is good therapy in ordinary times, but it’s especially calming at the moment.”

Image source, The Palace Gardener
Image caption,
With limited staff, keeping the plants alive is a priority

Davies Brothers Nursery, in Buckinghamshire, has been using YouTube to create a virtual shopping channel, posting videos regularly showcasing stock available. At the moment it’s offering a limited local delivery service.

In a statement on its Facebook page it says: “We are a small family business that was all set up for a normal spring-summer season until the whole world suddenly changed.

“Over the last 10 days, we have had to adjust way above our comfort levels and are working on a trial-and-error basis, while trying our hardest to get plants to as many of our loyal customers as possible.

“Number one in all this, though, is that everyone stays safe [and] well, and hopefully, some of our plants and hanging baskets can put a little smile on your face during this period,” it adds.

“Social media is something that has replaced the high-street shop in these times,” said Craig Summers, managing director of supply chain commerce analysts Manhattan Associates.

“Posting videos or photos daily allows you to draw customers in and is a more immersive shopping experience than an online transaction and delivery.”