When deciding what, where, when, and how to buy the aquatic plants you sell each season there are many options. They largely depend upon the tastes of your customers, the capabilities of your operation, as well as how soon the plants will sell. For example, if you have the time and staff to pot aquatics for sale later in the season, the plants you purchase will be different than if you require a finished product ready for sale by the following weekend.
Know Your Aquatics
There are three rules of selling aquatics: 1) be knowledgeable about aquatic plants, 2) be knowledgeable about aquatic plants, and 3) be knowledgeable about aquatic plants. Your expertise will help you decide what to order, how to maintain the plants while in stock, how to create suitable displays and signage, and how to help customers. Sales staff must also know about aquatics since they will be the ones getting questions and providing suggestions for what to buy. The bottom line is that if you and your staff know about aquatics, you will be able to sell them.
There are four categories of aquatic plants — submerged (formerly called oxygenators), marginals (bog plants), floaters, and water lilies. Most water garden retailers carry at least a few of each to provide everything required for complete pondscaping and healthy pond balance. The ratio of hardy vs. tropical varieties you carry will change with your climatic zone.
Learning about aquatic plants is not difficult. Growers and suppliers will gladly explain the best growing conditions and the different varieties. They are usually well informed on what grows well in your zones or which plants are the dependable classics and which are new. It is in their best interest for you succeed and sell truckloads of plant material. A visit to their growing facility may be a valuable road trip for your aquatic plant staff. They’ll see different varieties side by side, learn about proper growing conditions, and get ideas about varieties to stock.
Besides countless web sites, there are several good books that should be part of your garden center’s reference section and required reading for your staff. You or an employee should drop in on a local water garden club meeting or pond tour. You will see what types of aquatic plants are common, how they grow, and their best uses around the pond.
Learn Your Customers’ Preferences
It’s essential to keep good records of everything you stock (variety and size) as well as what sells, what bites the dust while in inventory, and what customers return. In addition, maintain a list for customer requests. Make certain all your sales staff uses the list. You can utilize it to institute and promote a special order program to obtain requested aquatics. This is an excellent way to build customer loyalty while simultaneously gathering market research. Your request list should also note details whenever a customer asks for a particular aquatic, even if no formal request is made. Review the lists and your sales/inventory records regularly to see if anything should be changed in the next plant order.
Speaking of change…your customers will soon let you know what they prefer through their purchases. Those should be the core (85-90%) of what you stock. However new and different aquatics should be added to your inventory with every restocking. Aquatics with different leaf forms, dwarf varieties, variegated leaves, and new water lily hybrids should be part of your orders on a regular basis. You don’t need to stock many of them, but at least enough to encourage return visits from your regular customers and to show that you carry the latest and the greatest, unlike the local Big Box. New aquatics also rank high on the impulse purchase list.
Select a Supplier
The ideal supplier is knowledgeable, has consistent quality plant material, offers a wide variety, and has good prices. Who you will buy from often boils down to a choice between mail order or local suppliers. The mail order growers may have a wider variety of aquatics and size range of plants. However they usually only ship barefoot or plugs. Their prices may be better but freight must be factored into the total cost.
Using local growers is often the most convenient option. This will enable you to get potted aquatics without hefty freight costs. You may also be able to get local plants more quickly, although last minute orders and changes don’t go over well with any supplier. Check the quality, quantity, and variety of offerings. As with any supplier, submit a few orders to evaluate the service and plants.
Evaluate Shipping Options
If your order must be shipped, be sure to order enough to make the additional freight costs worthwhile. If you order at least 4 to 5 boxes of plants, it may be cheaper to have them shipped airfreight. However this requires a trip to the airport. UPS and FedEx ground generally are fine if you are located within 500 miles of the grower. If you are farther away or the weather is hot it might be necessary to use 2nd day ground service.
Find the Perfect Aquatic Plant
Aquatics are bought in pots, plugs, and bareroot. Potted aquatic plants should be well rooted with healthy balanced growth, and the pots should be filled out. Plugs should also be well rooted. Bare root plants should have healthy live roots and robust foliage.
The plants should not have any hitchhikers, although it’s almost impossible to eliminate duckweed and azolla in large growing ponds. You should always carefully examine new aquatics. After carefully rinsing them off, it may make sense to keep them in a special holding tank where any unwanted freeloaders can be eliminated.
Best Values for the Money
Order well in advance, no later than a week before the plants are needed. This will help assure that you get the best selection and plants in the best condition.
Leaving the choice of individual plants up to the supplier (either mail order or local) can result in excellent values. You MUST give them plenty of notice as well as the dollar amount of the order, the rough proportion of plant types (floater, water lilies, submerged, and so forth), and the proportion of hardy or non-hardy for your climate. If you want to leave the entire selection up to them, let them know.
When using a local supplier, they generally prefer to deliver your order rather than have you pick it up. This requires less handling of the plants, less of their time, and is much easier to schedule. If you must order at the last minute to replace stock from a very successful weekend, then order early in the week. A potted aquatic plant from a local supplier will often be your best value. It doesn’t require any additional potting and can be sold immediately.
Plugs are often the best compromise for those who can’t get local delivery. They can either be sold as a finished product or potted up for sale later in the season. Since there isn’t much transplant shock and aquatic grow very quickly, they may be ready for sale as a larger plant within a few weeks. Plugs are an excellent value, since they are about the same price as bareroot.
Aquatic Plant Purchasing Mistakes
Making poor plant selections when new to the business – rely upon your supplier for recommendations
Buying aquatics that are illegal in your state – be aware of the invasives on your State and Federal lists
Picking up a load of plants in an uncovered vehicle – protect the aquatics from sun, wind, and drying air
Not allowing a substitute if a particular variety isn’t available
Waiting a month to report a problem with your order to the supplier
Ordering on-site from a retail/wholesale operation without identifying yourself as wholesale until the sale is rung up
Assuming the supplier will know that you only want hardy lilies
ASSUME NOTHING, SPECIFY EVERYTHING