Five Business Investments Your Budget Needs to Include to Increase Profits

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Technology and marketing investments with the highest returns for growers, landscapers and contractors

In today’s demanding marketplace and economy, technology is fundamental to a successful green industry business. Technology can greatly increase a company’s consumer base, drive sales, help improve time management and reduce the stresses of inventory management, among other benefits. But many wholesale plant and landscaping industry business owners are more rooted in earth and dirt than technology. Knowing what technology to invest in and what to skip can be confusing and overwhelming.

“Technology can help a business punch outside of their weight class,” advises Local Plant Source co-Founder Zac Tolbert. “If you are a small business and you are trying to take the next step up, you can’t necessarily do it with your limited physical resources, whether that’s humans or equipment. But if you utilize technology correctly, you can absolutely get into that next weight class and you can compete with those companies.”

Tolbert recently joined horticultural marketing consultant Leslie Halleck of Halleck Horticultural at the Texas Nursery and Landscaping Association’s Expo 2015 to lead a panel discussion about which technologies the industry’s small businesses should invest in to help increase profits.

Here are just a few takeaways from that conversation.

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1. Attracting new customers — Millennial customers — is one of the biggest challenges faced by wholesale plant and landscaping industry businesses. Companies are also struggling to hire enough quality employees. Having an active, up-to-date website is step one, as they can be used to attract both. Today, 85 percent of adults have the Internet in their homes, 89 percent of B2B researchers use the Internet for their searches, and more than half of all purchasing decisions are made through Internet searches.

In terms of cost, a good basic website that houses dynamic content will start at around $10,000 to build, not including advanced e-commerce; and you MUST plan on re-investing continuously. It’s the primary way for new customers to find you and research your goods and services. Your website is your brand and your credibility. Your website is also the only space on the Web that your business actually owns and controls. The primary purpose of other Web channels, such as social media accounts, is to drive customers to your website.

“I see a continuous undervaluation of Web presence among green industry companies. There are a lot of websites in this industry that look like they were built in the 1990s and still function that way, but it’s not 1994 anymore,” said Halleck, a marketing consultant and Certified Professional Horticulturist with more than 20 years of experience in different segments of the green industry. “Your website is your digital doorstep. It is your number one piece of marketing real estate.”

Websites are often the first impression and primary contact customers have with a business. They must be updated regularly and boast contemporary functionality, or customers will look elsewhere. Having a website that responds differently depending on what device it is viewed on — called “responsive design” — is the new baseline for functionality, as more people are using mobile phones and tablets as their primary tools for surfing the Internet and researching goods and services. Whether a website is built responsively is also a component to Google’s search engine algorithm; responsive websites show up in search results before websites without it.

“The modern economy has shifted to where you have to give something before you can get something,” Tolbert said. “’Treat people how you want to be treated’ boils all the way down into successful website design and content.”

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2. Continuous investment in a website throughout the year will help improve the experience of customers already familiar with your website, but it won’t necessarily help new customers find your website or business in searches. For that, business owners need to invest in generating new, helpful content for their websites – consistently, week after week. The content should answer potential customer questions, help solve a common problem, differentiate the business’s products and services from others, promote the company’s core values, or create connections with visitors, among other goals. The content should be tagged according to search engine optimization (SEO) best practices to make it relevant in Google searches.

Generating and posting consistent, interesting and shareable content on your website is time-consuming and requires great amounts of creativity. Hiring a full-time copywriter and marketing expert has several benefits: staff writers will have the greatest amount of opportunity to get to know the business and direct its brand. But companies that are too small to hire full-time copywriters can hire a contract writer. Writers can charge anywhere from $50 to $1,000 an article, depending on experience, quality, length of the post, topic and scope, etc. Contract writers without direct experience in the green industry will need continued input and guidance from the business’s staff or owners.

Content posted to websites adds to the company’s brand, can be shared on social media and through emailed newsletters, improves the website’s search engine optimization, creates a more educated public and helps customers, among other valuable benefits. Quality content can also help companies pre-screen for the right clients and make it easier for customers to choose companies that best fit their needs and budgets. Pre-screening reduces the amount of time employees spend answering questions from people who are not the company’s target customer.

“Think about how much time you will save by not dealing with 10 calls that may or may not get you a customer, because you didn’t tell a good story on your website, and how much more efficient your time will be when you get those two calls from customers who already know you are a perfect fit for them — you have what they want,” Tolbert said. “You can have 10 calls that have a 10 percent chance of success, or two calls that have an 80 percent chance of success."

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3. Aesthetics are at the foundation of the wholesale plant and landscaping industry. Everything we sell is visual. Growers aren’t selling plants; they sell the beauty of the natural world. Landscapers and contractors aren’t selling irrigation and credenzas; they sell enchanting, gorgeous environments.

Beauty is sold visually, so great pictures are essential to selling our products and services. Contractors looking for a plant to install for a job and homeowners looking for a landscape architect to redesign their backyard both make online purchasing decisions based largely on the visual appeal of the plant or landscape, as seen in photographs. Does a plant look vibrant, colorful and healthy? Does a landscape look beautiful and professional? Photographs and videos add credibility to a product or service, and they are needed for brochures, newsletters, social media postings, website content, advertisements — the list is long, and the impact is big.

“As a plant buyer, I wanted to see pictures of product, and that was a huge challenge for me; getting photographs from growers. I want you, as a sales person, to walk around, take pictures and send them to me before I order. And if you did that, my orders would typically increase by 30 percent. I would add some things on to my order that I never would have ordered without seeing a picture,” said Halleck, who was previously general manager for North Haven Gardens, an IGC in Dallas, Texas, and director of horticulture research for the Dallas Arboretum. “Every single time a grower sent me pictures, I would generally order what they sent me pictures of, because I could see that it was retail ready; I can sell that.”

A high-quality digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera and a community college or continuing education class on using the camera will have an incredible return on investment, as long as a company uses the camera consistently and creatively. Companies not wanting to invest in a professional or semi-professional digital camera — which run anywhere from $500 to $3000 as an initial investment, plus photo editing software, extra batteries, memory cards, tripods, lenses and other accessories — can hire professional photographers to take photographs of plants and finished jobs on a weekly or monthly basis. Professional photographer fees typically range from $50 to $200 an hour or more, depending on equipment requirements, post-production needs, the number of photographs purchased and other variables.

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4. Implementing a point of sale solution or inventory management system — whether software such as QuickBooks, Windward, MyPlantShop or an RFID (radio-frequency identification) barcoding system — is critical to understanding the true cost of doing business, more quickly turning over inventory, proactively marketing upcoming inventory, and analyzing orders, profits and losses, among other benefits. It also keeps growers from having to spend the excessive time and labor it takes to update inventory manually once a week or once a month.

“With an inventory management system, you can better understand supply and demand and where you stand with your products and the cost of keeping them. Can you afford to keep them any longer, or do you need to unload them to make space for something else?” Tolbert said.

Tracking inventory automatically and in real time so that product quantities and costs are as accurate as possible is also the only way to effectively meet consumer demands and expectations. Oftentimes, designers and buyers think they’ve found plants to purchase, but problems arise because growers don’t have real-time inventory tracking systems and the plants have already been sold. An unhappy customer is often not a repeat customer.

“It’s hard and it’s overwhelming, but in order to serve your customer in this modern day technological environment, you have to be committed to a certain level of technology so that you can provide real answers in real time. That’s real product quantities, real prices, every minute of every day,” Halleck said.

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5. Project management and productivity software can be a huge help to landscapers and contractors looking to streamline processes and fine-tune their operations, Halleck said. Project management solutions such as Asana and PlanGrid allow contractors with large projects to track projects and responsibilities from start to finish, making sure employees are ready to take the next step when they need to be. Productivity solutions such as Harvest make it easy to see how employees are distributing their time across projects and tasks. They also allow business owners to track project budgets, log expenses and billable time and create accurate invoices.

“I am crazy about numbers. I use time-tracking and scheduling software in my own small company. I track every single thing I do, all day long, and so do my employees. Time tracking is really amazing,” Halleck said. “It is a struggle to get started, but once you get there and you get it integrated, it really is going to help you hit your targets and benchmarks.”