Seed Catalog Customers Embrace the Web

For more than a century, gardening enthusiasts have relied on their trusty seed catalogs to plot out their plantings. But more consumers are applying their green thumbs to their keyboards to order goods, as online sales for gardening products have surged.

What’s more, according to Randy Schultz, spokesperson for the Mailorder Gardening Association, 2008 marks the first year that more than 50% of sales will be generated online.

“The Mailorder Gardening Association conducted a straw poll of its members to find out what percentage of sales was coming in via the Web,” Schultz says. “Based on early spring sales, the 2008 selling season is the first time in history that a majority of sales are coming in via Websites.

Although the typical gardening products catalog/Website is now receiving slightly more than 50% of its sales from online orders, “printed catalogs are not going away,” Schultz says. “They are still what drives most online buyers to the Websites where they place their orders.”

In fact, he says, “garden catalog companies have been extremely successful in using their printed catalogs as vehicles to drive Web traffic,” he says. “Consequently, more customers are buying their seeds, plants, garden supplies, and gardening accessories online every year.”

George Ball Jr., president of 132-year-old W. Atlee Burpee & Co., agrees with the association’s survey results. The Warminster, PA-based plant and seed cataloger has seen online sales go from zero to 50% of its business in seven or eight years, he says. “We started in 1995 with online sales and they were always very small. In 2000, they exploded–and have been exploding ever since.”

Ball says that Websites can provide more information about products, with “more of the back story. The Internet is an ideal place to go into more detail about unusual peppers, tomatoes, or beans than in a print catalog where you have only a paragraph of information. You can also print more pictures, and people like that.”

In general, most catalog companies have been seeing steady growth in online sales. But unlike, say, the electronics category, garden seed customers have been slower to warm to the Web.

That’s probably because seed gardeners tend to be older and traditionally, more technophobic. But Schultz says that “Older shoppers have overcome their resistance about using a new technology and they are now fully embracing the ease and efficiency of using the Internet for shopping.”

Just a few years ago, some were predicting the death of seed gardening as a hobby, since consumers seeking instant gratification were more likely to order plants that would grow faster. But seed sales remain steady.

It’s true that consumers who are new to gardening and people who don’t have a lot of discretionary time love to buy plants, because it gives them quicker gardening gratification, Schultz notes.

“But once someone gets bitten by the gardening bug, he or she wants to grow varieties of plants that aren’t available as plants — they are only available as seed,” he says, such as corn and new or heirloom varieties of tomatoes. “As one grows and matures as a gardener, he or she tends to buy more seeds and experiment with a wider range of plant varieties.”

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