Commercial best practice in bloom

With hardier business models now in place, the garden sites that have survived the freeze in online investment are becoming nurseries of commercial best practice.

Featured sites

So, you need a plant that attracts hummingbirds but won’t be eaten by rabbits? Easy: Romanian sage is your man and, heh, you’re on the Wal-Mart garden site so if you can’t buy it online straight away, you can print out a map that will show you the way to your nearest store.
This sort of thing reminds me why so many generous souls donated so much money to dotcoms way back when. The Wal-Mart garden site (at is an absolutely brilliant use of the web’s strengths. Use its interactivity to search a giant database and meet your obscure needs; then use either its secure payment mechanism to buy online, or its multimedia to generate a map. No other medium could do this. Indeed the only way of finding the answer to my hummingbird/rabbit problem in the past would have been to find an expert and just hope he or she knew the answer.
So this site, from one of the world’s most successful companies, must be a huge success? Well it may be now — but the Wal-Mart gardening site is in fact one remnant of a collapsed dotcom, I was looking at it partly because it’s that time of year (my grass is two feet high), and partly because I wanted to see what had happened to sites I looked at for this column two years ago. Are they still there, and how have they changed? The answers are yes they are, just about — though they have all trimmed their ambitions. And they have changed by weeding out anything that does not make money directly. Notably columns by television celebrities and some really useful, but expensive, content. They make use of interactive choosers certainly — but now as a way of nudging us towards the check-out, rather than as content in their own right.

Sales makeovers

Two years ago had many excellent features, including a downloadable garden planner and a heavily-used Garden Doctor section. It also sold things — but not enough to survive the money drought that set in in 2000; at the end of that year it withered, and sold off its assets. Wal-Mart bought the editorial content, but seems to have discarded most of it. No more planner; no more doctor; but I must tell you more about its amazing choosers.
There are two. One has basic selection criteria such as such as sun, flowering season and — crucial in the US — a Climate Zone Finder, which tells you what plants are suitable for the area you live. The other is advanced. It gives a raft of choices covering size, colour and soil, as well as exotics such as resistance to deer and rabbits.
Wal-Mart is a true ‘clicks and mortar’ operation — if the plant is available online, it will let you order it. Otherwise it will direct you to your nearest store. Like an increasing number of retailers it really does not care how you buy. As long as you do buy.
To find the rest of the collapsed dotcom, type in, and you will go to Burpee, a seed company founded in 1876 by W Atlas Burpee. These people believe in wasting even less time on non-commercial content. It seems to be there — the Garden School at Burpee University gives useful growing tips; but try clicking on the picture of Burpee’s Tumbler Tomato and you find yourself whisked to an online shop. It’s a very good shop — but it is not like any university I know.

Commercial planting

These are American outfits, and we know how commercial they are. What of the garden-crazy Brits? Well, two years ago I said that e-garden “has signed up all sorts of celebrity gardeners, who contribute brief articles… but there is no real use of interactivity”. The celebrities have all disappeared, and the site has become altogether more hard-nosed. It has a practical “How to” section and a modestly busy forum (good use of interactivity) where people can quiz each other on wisteria and the like. But its heart and soul is now commercial: buy, buy, buy, shouts the home page.
Crocus is also single-mindedly and rather cleverly commercial. It uses interactivity with imagination. You can for example say what sort of gardener you are — Keen but Clueless, Romantic, etc — and it will come up with suggestions for plants. These are well described, and oh-so-easy to pop into the online shopping basket. More ambitiously, Crocus tries to sell you complete flower beds. Look at the Pre-designed Border page, click on a display that attracts you, and you will find a detailed plan along with a ready-filled shopping basket. One display has 16 plant types and lets you buy the whole lot for £199.95 — 30 quid off. A neat and surprisingly tempting offer.
Crocus also offers a garden design service: print out a grid, fill in a questionnaire, fax them off and a suggested plan will come back (the idea, presumably, is that you then order the plants from the site). It does also have gardening tips from a celebrity gardener, Alan Titchmarsh. But this may just be because he is an investor.
I suppose I have discovered two things from these gardening sites. First, that they make excellent use of the internet, and are extremely handy for the gardener. Second, that these strengths do not guarantee success. But with harder business models now well bedded in, I cannot believe that this particular type of dotcom is not here to stay and, dare I say it, flourish.

First published 17 May, 2002
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