December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Garden.com

You’ve gotta love a site that offers Animal Crappers-three-inch-tall animal silhouettes fashioned from what looks like gingerbread, but most decidedly is not. The crappers are actually made of processed, scent-free Zoo Doo, which is exactly what you think it is. Set a crapper in the pot with your houseplant and routine waterings will release, uh, nutrients into the soil.

Garden.com claims to have the dirt on all things gardening, and it delivers. From Animal Crappers to less esoteric fare like trowels, bulbs and books, Garden.com delivers shovelsful of advice along with an astounding inventory of garden supplies and live plants. Cliff Sharples, co-founder along with wife Lisa and three other partners of Garden Escape Inc. which operates Garden.com and the Garden Shop of Horticulture Magazine’s site (www.hortmag.com), is still a relative newcomer to the world of gardening.

Straddling two worlds

In short order, he has picked up quickly on the quirky, opinionated world of amateur horticulture, which is anchored on one end by weekend warriors who want to install instant landscapes in a day to little old ladies who know more about orchids than most botanists. Straddling both worlds and the huge range of interests, motivations, and geographical situations of gardeners in between is a tall order. Garden.com interprets its mission as providing as much information as possible to visitors-even to the extent of listing out-of-stock plants for the convenience of people who are simply conducting research.

Ground zero is editorial director Doug Jimerson, former gardening editor for Better Homes and Gardens. Magazine features are showcased side-by-side with “shopping highlights” on the Garden.com home page. Visitors can search on just products, just articles, or both. Articles are studded with hyperlinks to product descriptions so that someone who gets inspired by an article can immediately order that plant or tool.

Each of the 9,000 types of plants offered by the site are cross-referenced by additional attributes as well so that someone who, say, wants to find orange flowers that like sun and can tolerate city air can plug in those terms and come up with “Non-stop Orange Begonia.” Sharples says that editors and buyers work months in advance to ensure that every plant, tool and book mentioned in an article is on hand when the article goes live; conversely, buyers alert editors when a new plant or product is about to debut, and if it’s newsworthy, it will probably get a writeup.

Such seamless blending of content and merchandising would surely raise eyebrows in a traditional garden magazine, but the truth is that the nature of gardening, as with all hobbies, is that education literally goes hand-in-glove with purchasing. Gardeners rarely research a topic out of idle interest; they want to DO something with what they learn-move a plant, add a plant, prune a plant, and delivering to their fingertips the shovel, tulip, or branch loppers to do the job is a welcome convenience.

Trump cards

Personal service and specialized advice have long been considered competitive trump cards held by neighborhood garden centers and tony mail-order catalogs over pedestrian home centers and discount stores.

Garden.com offers a huge array of services, from the “Garden Doctor,” (who answered my query about invasive backyard raspberry bushes 60 hours after I sent it) to “Design a Garden,” which lets visitors plug in all the specifications of their dream gardens and see how it would look-and order the whole thing with a single click, if they want. One thing that Garden.com doesn’t offer-and won’t, according to Sharples-is a cross-selling recommendation: i.e., “if you like blue irises, look at this week’s special on rare ‘black’ irises.” The staff has looked but hasn’t yet found many predictable patterns among purchases that would allow them to link products in any way that customers might find logical.

Picky, picky

The shopping “wheelbarrow” proceeds smoothly to checkout. One particularly nice feature: a confirming e-mail issued to the buyer when the order actually goes out the door. That’s nice for items like baskets, but crucial advance warning for buyers who need to clear time in their schedules to get live plants installed in their gardens immediately upon arrival. And, items are packed in environmentally correct wood shavings, a nice touch that helps Garden.com take root in consumers’ minds as a well-grounded source for everything they think they need-and then some-to sate their green thumbs.

Gardeners, especially knowledgeable ones, are picky about where they shop and who gets their return business. But retailing analysts like Garden.com’s approach to Internet merchandising.

“The site has some of the best graphics I’ve seen,” says Pamela E. Stubing, associate director, national retail consumer products, Ernst & Young LLP, New York. “Garden.com’s multiple logical pathways are very well done and the content is fresh and easily understood by users with a variety of experience on the Internet and in the garden.”

Not having continually refreshed content, Stubing points out, “is like having an empty store. People will say, ‘Why bother?’ ” •

www.garden.com

Time to load home page: 25.18 seconds.

Time to move between pages: 17.75 seconds to shopping main page

Total clicks to merchandise: Two clicks from the home page.

Notable site features: Rich editorial content. Enormous product

selection logically cross-linked. Engaging copywriting.

Ease of contacting company: Takes less time to call, fax or e-mail
than to get the attention of a local garden center worker swamped

with weekend green thumbs.

Ease of ordering and paying for merchandise: Intuitive layout, with customer help desk and FAQs never
more than two clicks away.

Are privacy/payment policies clearly posted and explained: Privacy policy button is front and center on

main home page, and is included in table of contents bar on many shopping pages.

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