Nursery Management Conference: E-commerce boot camp
Bill Jones of Carolina Native Nursery discusses e-commerce at the Nursery Management Conference, Sept. 15, 2021.
Matt McClellan

Nursery Management Conference: E-commerce boot camp

Lessons learned from a nursery with plenty of experience in online sales.

September 22, 2021

Editor’s note: The Nursery Management Conference took place Sept. 14-16 in Arlington, Texas. Over the next week, we’ll be giving you a glimpse of what you missed if you didn’t attend.

One of the constant themes from the Nursery Management Conference was that 2020 changed the way we do business. Consumers and B2B customers alike expect online sales to be readily available, manageable and convenient. After the pandemic surge in gardening, more of those consumers are searching for plants online. If you have a retail element to your business, you’ll want them to find you and not your competitor at the end of their Google search. But even if you are strictly wholesale, e-commerce can help you. It’s not a simple process, but it can be done, and it has been done. Growers of all sizes are making it work.

Bill Jones, president and founder of Carolina Native Nursery, spoke about his experience as a small grower using e-commerce in his business. Jones’ Burnsville, North Carolina nursery is a specialty grower of native shrubs, perennials, ferns and grasses. The nursery and its clientele are laser-focused on the environmental impact of natives, especially how they provide food and shelter for a variety of pollinators and birds. The nursery specializes even further into indigenous rhododendrons, azaleas and mountain laurels that are grown from seed on site.

He’s been selling plants online to wholesale and retail customers for years, so he’s well-placed to help conference attendees navigate these waters. Here are a few highlights of his presentation:

Jones is a fan of Google ads. Spending $60/month results in tons of impressions. Jones said this really helps with search engine optimization, which in turn helps more people find his business’ website.

AdWords is pay-per-click. So make sure your keywords are specific. For instance, Jones sets “native azalea” as a keyword to track instead of simply “azalea.” That means the AdWords program will have better odds of sending him a high-quality potential lead. That’s because someone who searches for “native azalea” is more likely to be interested in what Carolina Native Nursery offers than someone who searches for “azalea.”

Watch out for hacks. After a fall 2019 hack, Jones upgraded his e-commerce system. The whole site runs on WordPress, which has a fairly simple interface and tools. For $1,400, he added a WooCommerce plugin that takes the nursery’s inventory right from a Google spreadsheet and shows wholesale customers what they can buy and how much of it is available.

The new site and plugin have been helpful for Jones’ own analytical efforts, as well.

“I know who looked at what, when,” he said.

Last, take good care of your email list. Jones gets a 30% open rate on his marketing emails, which is much higher than the typical rate. He attributes this to a reluctance to overload his subscribers and attention to detail with regard to who those subscribers are. The list has been meticulously maintained since 2003. Everyone on it is a real customer. 

Watch for more from the 2021 Nursery Management Conference.