Seed mailer thrives under new owners

May 01, 2006 9:30 PM  By

Baltimore-based D. Landreth Seed Co. is the oldest seed company in the U.S., dating back to 1784. But three years ago Barbara Melera and husband Peter bought the company and brought it into the 21st century. In addition to relaunching the print catalog, which hadn’t been published since the 1930s, they introduced a Website in 2004.

The Meleras are reaping the rewards of their investment. Since 2003, says Barbara Melera, the business has grown an average of 25% each year.

“The first catalog we did was in December 2003, and the circulation was tiny, under 500 catalogs,” says Melera, who worked as a venture capitalist for 20 years at Baltimore-based Tritech Partners. “It was sent to current customers of the company and was used as both a retail and a wholesale catalog.” The company targets small hardware stores, nurseries, and garden centers as well as consumers.

That first year, Melera estimates, the company distributed an additional 1,000 catalogs by hand to people attending flower shows. Landreth reps attend about 13 shows a year.

Circulation remains small by industry standards: 2,500 catalogs were distributed in 2004, and 4,000 mailed since December. Nonetheless, Melera says, “the catalog has really given the company an identity and has greatly accelerated brand recognition, which is an incredible asset,” plus it has redefined Landreth in the eyes of others.

Melera expects to mail 10,000 catalogs this year and up to 25,000 next year. New customers come mainly from garden shows and word-of-mouth. The company has yet to rent names.

Landreth’s 2006 catalog has been expanded — to 78 pages from 70 last year and 54 in 2004 — and completely redesigned. In addition to new, detailed product descriptions, the catalog now features 16 pages of photographs rather than relying exclusively on vintage illustrations.

The Website, www.landrethseeds.com, accounts for 20%-30% of overall revenue, Melera says. She believes the future of small boutique seed businesses like hers lies in a “credible” Web business.

“Seeds are becoming less and less in favor,” she says. “You’re accessing a certain segment of the garden market place to begin with. The most efficient way to do that is a mail-order catalog business and a credible Website.”

Because gardeners are readers by nature, Melera adds, it only makes sense to support any Internet business with a paper catalog. “Our catalog will always be our most effective tool when it comes to brand recognition,” she says.