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Starting A Mail Order Plant Business

The Mail Order Nursery

❶I have spent as much as 10 minutes looking through some catalogs just to find the phone number

starting a mail order plant business

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If your aloe has aloe mite, I would send it back. I have not had any vendor refuse to send a replacement for an infected plant. Then I plant everything in pots in dry soil. This might not be the wisest move, and many others would recommend putting them in pure pumice.

But I have had few problems putting them in dry cactus soil, though I do tend to add a lot of extra pumice, even if there is pumice in the soil already.

Rarely do I kill something by underwatering it although I have done that, too. Mostly, I kill things by watering them too much or too soon. Patience is a virtue If I were really doing the right thing, I would probably not water anything I received by mail order for weeks after planting it in dry soil. But I can rarely wait that long and most of the time, things work out okay. The plant must form new roots before watering can do the plant any good. Once I get an order in, I put them all in a pot in first photo, pot already had a cactus in it until they either 1 die, or 2 I figure out what to do with them.

Some may stay in these group pots for up to a year and by then they are well established and easy to move elsewhere. Do not place new arrivals directly in the hot sun, even if these plants normally grow in hot sun.

Most mail order plants come from greenhouses, even if from climates where you would think they would be outdoors. I have fried countless plants this way, even cacti that should love being in the sun. Acclimate these plants slowly to sunlight by putting them out in early mornings and gradually increase their exposure. It may take months, so p atience is important. Aloe viguieri , a true sun worshiper, here at time of receipt left , suffering in sun middle and finally moved to protected area and looking great right.

Eventually it will move back out into the sun again. Cactus just planted out in full sun- fried to death literally Nearly every source I have tried has been excellent in one way or another and only a few have been disappointing. But if you are a beginner, and you do not live in an area where thousands of species of cactus and succulents can be found locally, then there is an exciting and long list of mail order places to try out.

While I have definite opinions about certain companies, I feel uncomfortable making any comments about them that could be taken as negative in any way, so if you need to know more about a particular company, you should go to the Garden Watchdog and read all the comments about each vendor.

That is probably the best way to find out what to expect from each company and it is a far better forum for that sort of information and criticism than this article is. You should be cautious about ordering succulents and cacti from overseas, for a variety of reasons. Though some of the overseas vendors have lots of stuff that simply is unavailable here in the U.

I had the very disappointing experience of ordering some very rare aloes from a company overseas only to find my order held up in a quarantine station. It turns out getting that paperwork required me to jump through far more hoops than I was prepared to do, and I lost the entire shipment it was quite a costly order, too.

Can you tell that I find this very annoying? If you want to say that the plant needs full sun, or that it attracts hummingbirds, then say it. The answer, of course is nothing! Simply by reading most catalogs, you can see that those people writing catalogs have never actually seen the plants that they are describing.

We like to write our catalog while looking at either the plant, or at the very least, a good photo of the plant. One of our typical descriptions would read: Arisaema sikokianum Japanese Cobra Lily After flowering, the foliage remains attractive until it goes dormant in late summer.

There is a fine line between a good description and too much description; between too much fluff and no fluff. You will simply have to determine what works best for you.

I would always advocate too much rather than too little. Some catalogs simply list prices, hardiness zones, and flower color. Their lack of enthusiasm certainly speaks volumes to their customers.

I have gone through myriads of catalogs, listing dozens of cultivars with which I was unfamiliar. With any modicum of description, and personal endorsement, I would have certainly ordered at least three times the amount I ordered. After writing our catalog, I always like to give the catalog to a non-plant person and ask for their comments. I like to ask my catalog critics two questions: Leave your ego behind, and ask for suggestions on how to make the catalog easy to use.

Some of you may be thinking: Did you know that there are professional garden writers? Within the group of Garden Writers Association GWA , there are hundreds of people whose job it is to do just what you need. Perhaps, a simple ad, or a few phone calls, could easily secure a professional writer. As with all applicants, request a portfolio, since anyone off the street can call themselves a garden writer.

Local colleges with horticulture programs may have viable candidates for catalog writing as well. I like to open each catalog with a personal message or brief introduction. Part of the function of the catalog is to establish a personal relationship between your nursery and your customers.

Some nurseries choose to write about the trials and tribulations of their family or pets, while others describe their plants, or the going-ons at the nursery. The key is to write something that your customers will want to read, and that will establish a personal bond between you and your customer. Does your catalog tell a little bit about your nursery? When was it founded, who are the officers, and what is your mission? Does your catalog clearly explain how to transact business?

What methods of payment do you accept? Do you ship plants, or will they have to be picked up at the nursery? We devote several pages at the beginning of our catalog to sections such as ordering, shipping, guarantees, etc. I like to have contact numbers at least on every other page, often at the bottom.

I have spent as much as 10 minutes looking through some catalogs just to find the phone number Be sure to thoroughly explain how a customer can do business with your nursery. I have seen dozens of catalogs filled with wonderful plants, but trying to decipher the ordering and shipping information and charges was so difficult to understand that I never got around to sending the order.

It is a good idea for catalog writers to order from other catalogs, in order to see how easy it actually is to be a customer. What are your guarantees, and what size and price are your plants? How can a customer check on availability of each item? How can a customer visit the nursery, and if so when and how? How is your catalog organized? Without having a clearly organized and usable format, your catalog will be pretty useless to your potential customer.

Remember that data is of no use unless it can be processed into usable information. A plant listing that cannot be found by a customer is a waste of time and space.

Any method of catalog organization that you choose can be supplemented by using cross indexing. If you organize your catalog via plant groups, i. The key in deciding how to organize your catalog is learning to think like your target customers. Your catalog is the guide to using your nursery If, for example, a customer is looking for a plant by a Latin name, then common names are useless. Obviously, the reverse is also true.

If your customers are looking for a groundcover, then an alphabetical listing would not be ideal unless it was cross-referenced.

If you are in a deer-prone area, then a list of deer-resistant plants would help. If your catalog is selling color, then you may wish to organize by flower color or season of bloom.

If you are marketing primarily to landscape designers, you may want to color-code your flowering plants. Landscape designers absolutely love catalogs that have all plants coded using the international standard Royal Horticultural Society RHS color charts. Catalog Cover Look at different catalogs Are there particular catalogs that you use over and over? Can you name the catalogs that you use regularly and describe their covers? What is it about these few catalog covers that attracts your attention and draws you back?

The first thing that customers see and remember about your catalog is the cover, yet this is often given the least consideration and thought. There is no part of the magazine that receives more thought, time, and money than the cover.

Having a memorable catalog cover is a great way to not only build name recognition for your nursery, but to keep your catalog at the top of the heap. What thought do you want to have associated with your nursery? How do people remember your catalog from all others? I think the idea of having identical covers every year is a tragic mistake What if your favorite magazine used the same cover each issue?

What I prefer is a different cover each year which still reflects the personality or theme of your nursery. You will be amazed that customers remember certain covers and the years during which they appeared. When customers call, they will actually refer to the plants that were listed the year you had the "blank" cover. We wanted to relay the image of a fun-loving catalog, while doing something that was completely distinctive, so we opted for a cartoon-cover format.

After all, where do most folks seem to turn first in their daily newspapers? Our catalog covers feature cartoon parodies of current events or situations of which most people would have knowledge.

Think about which catalogs you keep for years, and which ones you toss away as soon as they arrive. Since you now realize that your catalog cover art is a critical component of your catalog, have you considered hiring a professional artist, photographer, or graphic designer to help with your catalog cover?

If magazines feel that their cover is the most important part of their publication Selections of Offerings When you begin selecting your catalog offerings, refer back to your mission statement to help determine if a potential listing will fit within your nursery focus.

I usually put these epic catalogs off to the side until I have time, which may take months, if I ever get around to reading them. Most customers are not persistent enough to stick with these massive catalogs long enough to actually get an order together.

Specialty nurseries may list varieties of a particular plant such as a daylily, iris, or hosta. While there are a few collectors out there who are driven to collect every plant name, are there really that many great plants of a particular genus which are truly distinctive, or are you simply selling differing plant names?

I contend that if you have trouble writing distinctive descriptions for each variety In reality, massive collector lists will leave most customers so confused that they will actually order less, if they order at all. For long term success, be sure that the plants you offer are going to make good garden specimens in your market area.

The part of selecting your catalog offerings that is often overlooked is the process of costing out the catalog. Unfortunately, all pages will not contain saleable plants. If, at the end of the season, you find that certain plants do not pay for their space in the catalog, then you must make a decision whether to continue to offer these plants.

I am certainly not saying that you should drop all plants that do not reach a set economic threshold, but you will need to consider which of these plants to continue to offer, and which to drop. Keep in mind that when you are introducing a new plant to the market, it will often take 3 - 5 years for the plant to catch on with the market. In this case, you may have to suffer through a few years of low sales. In some cases, a particular plant may be a poor seller, but is desired by one or more of your good customers in marginally economic quantities.

You must decide that the plant is worth offering to keep a good customer happy. Plant Nomenclature Nomenclature may seem like a small thing to a nursery owner, but a catalog without good nomenclature can certainly hurt sales. To understand why, again try to think like a customer. Would you order from a clothes catalog that was filled with misspellings or incorrect names on the catalog items? If you see a nursery catalog filled with errors, would you not assume that they grow their plants with the same lack of attention to detail?

There are a number of nursery customers who will immediately discard catalogs that are filled with nomenclature errors. In short, this reflects both a lack of attention to detail as well as a lack of understanding of the plants they grow. Years ago, I received a catalog from a regional tree and shrub wholesaler. I was very impressed with his selections, but hundreds of simple misspellings were appalling and distracting.

After first discarding the catalog, I later retrieved it, red pen in hand, and took time to correct all of the spelling errors. I mailed the catalog back to the nursery owner with a note telling him that I was very impressed with his catalog offerings, and hoped that the corrections would help him to be more successful. It was nearly ten years later before I met the same nurseryman at a trade show. He introduced himself with a remark about what I had done nearly a decade earlier.

The nurseryman relayed being furious over my comments, and only years later realized that this was indeed a favor, and ended our conversation with a thank you. The nursery has since become one of the top regional growers. You will quickly learn however that listing plants solely with common names is a nightmare. Not only do common names vary from region to region, but the same common name may apply to several different plants.

Whether you like it or not, you will have to learn a bit of Latin. I do strongly recommend using both botanical and common names wherever possible. Books like Botanical Latin Stern, will be very helpful in explaining many of these seemingly meaningless Latin words. How and When to Print a Catalog So, when should you assemble your catalog, and when should it be sent to your customers? As a general rule, wholesale catalogs should be sent in late summer late August and September , while retail catalogs that arrive near the first of the year seem to be the most successful.

Even within this scheme, timing is critical. For wholesalers, catalog timing depends on your market. If you cater to landscape installers, their work usually picks up in the fall, as does the garden center market.

Also, many nursery retailers prefer to order their plants in the fall, for spring delivery. If a wholesale catalog arrives too early in the summer, no one is going to pay much attention. If a wholesale catalog arrives too late in the fall, you will find that most customers have already placed their orders, and you will only manage to pick up sales when others run short on inventory.

Whether it is done via fax, e-mail, or other means, this is critical to maintaining contact with your customers, as well as moving excess inventory. For retailers, especially those in the mail order business, the natural consumer purchasing season is spring.

The primary exception is nurseries that offer bulb-type crops, which sell best in the fall. Most nurseries would prefer to increase fall sales and fall planting, but peak interest in purchasing plants will always be in the spring after a winter of rest and a break from the garden.

This is not to say that fall ordering and planting is non-existent, but it is only a fraction of the spring business. If you choose to issue your only retail catalog in the fall, it is essential to follow up again with some type of reminder in early spring.

I like to time retail mail order catalogs so that they arrive after the Christmas holidays. In many households, catalogs that arrive prior to this time are often lost or simply forgotten in the holiday rush. Conversely, catalogs that arrive too late, in the midst of spring rush, are often overlooked as well. You will find that many mail order customers actually allocate a certain budget each year for plants, which is spent with the first catalogs to arrive.

If your catalog arrives too late, many customers may have already spent their budget. Some retail mail order nurseries, especially those that sell woody plants prefer to ship in the fall and winter, and therefore issue their catalogs in the fall.

While this will make shipping easier, the volume of sales will only be a fraction of what they would be if the catalog and shipping occurred during the spring season. One of the interesting tricks that many nurseries borrow from other industries is the issuance of a number of duplicate catalogs each year.

The theory is that your customers are more likely to order if they are deluged with your catalogs, 4 - 6 times per year, reminding them that they have not ordered. Each catalog will have the same content pages, with only the cover changing with each mailing.

My personal feeling is that this is a waste of my time, and certainly one of paper. Perhaps during a time when there were fewer catalogs in existence, and certainly before the advent of on-line catalogs, this strategy might have worked, but I get very upset and frustrated when I take time to peruse a catalog, only to find that I have already been there and done that!

Next comes the question of whether or not to charge money for your catalogs. Most wholesalers give their catalogs away as part of the cost of doing business. The trend in the retail mail order industry has been to charge a few dollars for their catalogs. The other school of thought, by virtually all of the larger mail order companies, is to give away the catalogs for free, under the premise of attracting a larger customer base that would be unwilling to pay for a catalog.

By charging for your catalog, you are in theory pre-culling the people that would also be unlikely to spend money on plants and who simply wanted your catalog as reading material.

Conversely, the more you charge for your catalog, the more perceived value you give the catalog. If you choose to charge for your catalog, be aware that you will not be charging your current customers, but only potential new customers who request a catalog. Be sure to charge enough to make up for the time and cost of processing the checks, as this can quickly eat up a small catalog charge. Like all retail mail order nurseries, we were faced with the same dilemma in the early years of our operation.

We wanted to do something that would give our catalog value, but without actually charging for the catalog. I was never able to rationalize the economics of this, especially where the nursery would send the prospective customer back a letter requesting payment before the catalog could be sent. Our solution was to request payment as either stamps or a box of chocolates.

Our in- house policy was that catalogs were actually free, and would be sent to anyone, but when the catalog was promoted, our "catalog price" was given as "ten stamps or a box of chocolates. A side benefit was that it allowed our employees an employment benefit, as they enjoyed hundreds and hundreds of boxes of chocolates each season.

There is no doubt an array of other creative solutions to the normal practice of charging a few dollars for your catalog that have not been explored.

Catalog Layout and Design Now that you have made all of the decisions about catalog content and when to publish, you are now faced with the job of catalog layout. Catalog layout is, simply put, what goes where, and in what format. You may think this is not as critical as content, but trust me, without good layout, customers can completely miss information that is right in front of them. Why do you think grocery store vendors pay so much attention to shelf space location, and are willing to offer incentives for the placement of certain items on particular spots on the grocery shelf?

There is indeed a science in determining how the eye moves, and in turn how we take in information. I strongly recommend studying as many catalogs as possible, and garnering ideas from the best ones.

Ideas are simply concepts, not exact formats, designs, and certainly not text, as these are copyrighted. There is a fine line between plagiarism and the age-old concept of borrowing ideas. The industry of graphic design has exploded, as more folks have realized the value of this formerly overlooked skill.

It is the job of a graphic designer to determine and arrange your catalog size and format, determine page margins, decide how to index the catalog and best use cross-reference charts, select fonts type styles, and other tasks of this nature. Something as simple as using the wrong font, or printing your text in capital letters will make your catalog incredibly hard on the eyes, and will cause your customer to overlook much of the text.

Similarly, certain fonts may look artistically pretty, but may be virtually unreadable by your customers. While a good font can truly set the tone for your catalog, the wrong fonts also can be your biggest headache when working with a printer. Be sure to ask your printer to determine if your selection of fonts are compatible with their equipment before you begin to format your catalog. Even do-it-yourselfers now have a great ability to create professional-looking catalogs, provided they have the knowledge of desktop publishing to do so.

The array of desktop publishing programs has changed this capability for small businesses who are computer-savvy. Printing the Catalog One of the most agonizing decisions is how many copies of your catalog to print. I have seen far too many nurseries that simply assume that if they send out more catalogs, or add color to the catalog, that they will make more money.

There is little doubt that your sales will increase, but will the increase in sales be enough to cover your greatly increased expenses and still make a profit?

If you keep accurate records, this decision becomes much easier after a few years. Start by looking at the number you printed last year and multiply by your expected growth rate based on past track records.

Keep in mind any special events that you will participate in during the season, such as presentations, trade shows, etc. If you would like to expand your potential customer base, such as through purchasing a mailing list, you may wish to print extra catalogs for this purpose.

As with most purchases, price discounts increase in proportion to quantity, and in the printing business this certainly is the case. The per copy cost of printing a catalog drops dramatically as size of the print run increases, since many of the set-up and related costs are the same for a small or large run. There are a staggering number of decisions when you move from the world of copy centers to the world of printers. Paper weight, paper size, paper finish, and paper quality, both for the catalog and the cover, must be determined.

The thicker the paper and the better the finish flat vs. This must be balanced against the durability of the catalog and the perceived value of the items inside. While printing on low quality paper or even newsprint is much less expensive, it translates into less perceived value for the plants inside. Decisions on paper selection also affect the cost of mailing, since the thickness of the paper increases the weight of the catalog.

Often a seemingly insignificant increase in the thickness of the paper will translate into a dramatic increase in postage cost for a larger catalog. Another important decision is whether to print a black and white catalog, as opposed to color. Start with 1, names of people who buy your particular type of product.

Order the mailing lists on Cheshire labels or the peel-and-stick kind. Write a two- to- four-page sales letter that introduces your mail order company. State in your sales letter how buying your products will benefit people, according to Entrepreneur. Create an order form to go with your sales letter and the brochures you ordered from your wholesaler. Make 1, copies of the order form and sales letter. Affix the mailing list labels to your self-addressed envelopes.

Place a sales letter, brochure and order form in each envelope. Seal the envelopes and mail them at the post office. Order products from your wholesaler when people purchase your products. Send just the wholesale cost for the products and keep the balance. Place the products in a box or shipping envelope before mailing them to customers. Mail products out within 30 days as this is the law.

Continue to order new mailing lists and mail out sales letters and brochures.

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