January 2008
Web 101: Getting Your Garden Center’s Website Off the Ground By Cathy Owano

To create a presence on the Internet, explain what your business offers and help your customers find your business, there are two important steps to take before you begin to merge onto the gridlocked information highway.

Think it Through

Why do you want this website? What is your purpose in putting your company, expertise and products on the Internet for the world to see? If you answered, “Because everyone is doing it and we need to catch up,” then you’re about to put in a lot for work for all the wrong reasons.

The best sites are those whose owners contemplate their reasons for wanting representation on the World Wide Web, and plan what they will offer through the site — both now and in the future.

What does your garden center offer that others can’t? What is your mission? What can you do for customers you can’t see, hear or be in the same room with? Will you list your entire inventory on the site? Will the site feature a calendar of events held at your garden center throughout the year? Will you provide information on caring for plants or special considerations for a particular growing zone? What about pests and diseases to watch out for? Will your site help troubleshoot planting, watering, weeding or growing problems? What about specials or sales? Clearances? Will your site be a dynamic one that grows with your business or remain a static, informational site?

Plan Your Organization

First of all, consider what you like to know about a company as a customer. Put yourself on the other side of the counter, and look at what you are planning to have on your website from a customer’s point of view. Is what you have in mind going to be helpful, informational and, above all, worthwhile?

Start with the simplest, easiest offerings. Where are you located? Help your customers find you. Not just an address, phone number and e-mail address: Don’t forget to give directions. Provide a map or detailed text directions from various points around town. Even people who don’t live in your geographical area but are gardening buffs who surf for interesting garden centers may find your site and plan a trip if they happen to be in the area for other reasons. Will they have a hard time finding you?

What are your business hours? Do you have special holiday hours? Are you closed for part of the season or open year round? Let your customers know where and when they can access your garden center’s offerings.

These two things — location and business hours — are the most important features on your new website. If you forget them, you may be missing out on potential customers or, at the very least, frustrating them. Some websites have a special area devoted to these two things — an “About Us” area that may also list how your garden center came to be, your mission statement and perhaps some fun facts about your staff or center. Some companies list their address and contact information as a footer at the bottom of every page or even on the navigation menu as a static element throughout the site. The key is to make it visible and easy to locate.

After you have that information ready to go, your next step is to divide your site priorities into two specific lists: the must-haves and the nice-to-haves.

Must-haves

You already have two: your location and business hours. What else can you add to that list? Maybe, if you’re pressed for time, these are the only two things that will appear on your website to begin with. That’s fine. They are the two most important pieces of information you can offer your customers.

But what else is a must-have? These items are subjective, depending on your goals for the site. If it’s strictly informational — in other words, customers won’t be able to buy things or interact with you in any way — you will primarily be adding information. This content has to be written, but that’s something any person who can put a few sentences together can do. (Don’t forget to spell check and have someone else proofread your copy. Remember, this website represents your company.)

Textual content, the simplest format, doesn’t require computer programming. If this is the way you are going to go, it will be much easier to add more in time. But it’s important to prioritize the information to go up first, and what you can add later to benefit your customers. Consider finding a way to categorize this information so your customers can easily find the information they’re looking for.

People looking for ways to educate themselves on gardening will appreciate good, basic content. Helpful tips for your customers will keep them coming back to you and give you a solid reputation as a good resource. Perhaps your website can address questions they might have, such as:

  • What’s the difference between a perennial and an annual?
  • Do I need a plant that grows in the shade or one that takes full sun?
  • Can my yard handle both?
  • How do I select a good plant? What do I look for?
  • How do I plan out what I am going to plant this year? When is a good time to fertilize?
  • Is your staff available to help?

If, however, you want an interactive site where your customers can browse and purchase products online, or search a database to find out which plants attract Monarch butterflies or hummingbirds, then you will probably need outside help. Discuss costs with your web designer to help you prioritize the features you want to launch right away and which can wait.

Nice-to-haves

Nice-to-haves are the features that cost too much or you don’t have the time to develop at present. They’ll offer value down the road, but they take a little more work or aren’t immediately necessary. As the old saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” As much fun as building a website can be, most companies need to be practical and stage the features they roll out on their website. If you plan it right, these added features will be pleasant, helpful surprises for your customers as you unveil them.

Perhaps you would like to use quotations or funny sayings to illustrate or add graphic emphasis on your web pages. Fine. Giving your customers something to chuckle over would probably be appreciated. But is it more important than offering a selection of books that address overwatering or garden design? That’s for you to decide.

How about a gallery of customer photographs showing what they have planted that season or how they have used a particular plant you offer? Could your website feature something like this? Possibly, but again, it may not be the most important feature — it may be something you need to grow into.

Build your master plan before you build your site, and it will serve you as well as it serves your customers. It should be mostly what you want it to be and what your customers need it to be. It is an extension of your company that represents your philosophies, products and expertise to the world.

SIDEBAR

Checklist for our website

1. Address
2. Directions to the store
3. Greeting
4. Business hours
5. Special sales
6. Plant information and product photos

a. Annuals
b. Perennials
c. Growing tips
d. Disease and bugs

7. Inspirational/funny quotes?
8. Customer photographs?
9. What else????

Tips to Help Navigate Your Website

  • If you have to explain how someone should navigate your website, it’s wrong. The navigation should be instantly recognizable and easy to discern.
  • Plan how you categorize and organize your website carefully.
  • Test out your navigation with people who aren’t involved in planning your website — your customers, someone who knows a lot about the web, or even someone who knows very little about the web. List your main categories horizontally across a piece of paper (e.g., Home, About Us, Plants, Ask the Plant Doctor, etc.). Then ask if they could find directions to your garden center, or where they would put watering tips for annuals. See if your organization makes sense to your website visitors.
  • Make sure you put your navigation menu in a place that makes sense, especially the subordinate items. If your website visitor has to jump through hoops to figure out where they need to go to find information, you are going to frustrate and ultimately lose them. Your web designer can be helpful here, but make sure they don’t choose aesthetics over functionality.
  • Will your site have a search engine? Will it search the entire site, or only part of it, such as a plant database that tells you the native flora and fauna for the Mississippi River Valley, or which variety of such and such a flower takes full sun or requires shade?
  • Will your site have a “site map”? This lists the main areas of your website, and the subordinate pages within each area. It’s like an index at the back of a book that lists your content and links right to each page. This is another form of useful navigation.

Some Good Examples

Let’s take a look at some websites. The first is Baker’s Acres Greenhouse (www.bakersacres greenhouse.com). They feature pretty much everything we’ve talked about here. Their navigation menu has a lot of features, but they’re well organized and make it easy to find what you’re looking for. At the very bottom of the page, they list their address, phone numbers and a link to a map. They also offer information on upcoming sales, something to keep in mind for your site as well.

Another good site is Mahoney’s (www.mahoneysgarden.com). While aesthetically pleasing, this website also offers great content: It’s categorized, with navigation across the top and sprinkled lightly across the bottom. The site has a greeting to customers, feature offerings and special sale information, as well as contact information for its many locations — all on the homepage.

One more is Geimer’s Greenhouses (www.geimers.com). This is a simple site: The homepage tells about the company, services and store hours. The navigation is straightforward, and the presentation is pleasant.

How does your website compare? Do you have a master plan? Coming next: Don’t take design or functionality for granted.

Cathy Owano

Cathy Owano is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area and has been creating websites for nearly 10 years. She can be reached at webhead16828@yahoo.com.





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