Garden.com: Growing By Its Own Rules
A move from pure play to cataloger—that’s the trend in the online retail industry.
After years online, pure-play retailers are discovering that catalogs are cost-efficient customer-acquisition and branding tools. But despite moving into the mail order world, pure plays do not consider themselves catalogers.
Lisa Sharples, co-founder of Garden.com and the force behind that company’s recent print catalog drops, is straightforward about its catalog’s purpose—driving customers to the Garden.com Web site. Unlike many entrepreneurs who launch catalogs as extensions of their avocations, she didn’t start Garden.com out of enthusiasm for gardening. Sharples and her partners wanted to start an online business in a growth market.
“We weren’t gardeners trying to turn our passion into a business. We were MBAs trying to find a business,” says Sharples.
The three co-founders, Sharples, her husband Cliff and Jamie O’Neill, are all graduates of Kellogg Graduate School at Northwestern University. In their hunt to become online entrepreneurs, Sharples says a move to Texas got her imagining a company that could recommend plants that grow best in your area and then ship them to you.
They started holding gardening focus groups and found that the serious gardeners usually shopped from 30 different catalogs, each with a different niche—bulbs, seeds, plants, tools, etc.
The industry’s segmentation has much to do with shipping and growing issues. Catalogers realized that buyers shop for one particular type of plant at a time rather than buying a variety in one shot. Typically, several growers source a gardening catalog, but can hardly keep pace to offer the kind of variety buyers desire.
The three partners examined the strength of the growing gardening business and its supply-chain weakness, and saw an opportunity to combine two successful retail models: category killers and online shopping. A category killer is a retailer that supplies every facet of a consumer’s needs in a particular industry segment—Home Depot is a prime example. While difficult to operate, they mean big dollars because they attract a great deal of customers.