Online plant retailer Michiel Ingen Housz offered FCI an exclusive behind-the-scenes glimpse into 123planten.nl while revealing some tricks of the trade of his thriving online plant business.
To date, the headquarters of 123planten.nl is neatly tucked behind the Pyramide cash and carry store at Royal FloraHolland Naaldwijk. Visitors enter via an almost invisible ‘backstage door’ dividing the tranquil world outside and a beehive of activity inside where the constant drum of a pneumatic staple machine fills the air.
Thirty-six-year-old Michiel Ingen Housz, a very distant relative of the 18th-century physician and biologist Jan Ingenhousz, who discovered how plants convert light into energy, promises that next time he will welcome us to a modern office building.
He has just put his signature under an agreement which will see the company and its 20 staff moving away from the auction. He acknowledges Royal FloraHolland’s reputation as the world’s largest global auction but says that his company is quickly outgrowing space. “The lack of any suitable alternative on the auction grounds, plus the uncertainty surrounding possible housing areas in Naaldwijk, brought me to a new location in Maasdijk. Here, we will soon occupy offices with an annexe packing hall expanding from 700m2 to 5,000m2.”
Ingen Housz explains he has no roots in horticulture, other than he grew up in Noordwijkerhout, in the heart of the Netherlands’s famous bulb growing area. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to start his career in horticulture ten years ago, running several houseplant corners for a Dutch DIY chain. “In my free time, I started exploring the online sales of indoor plants. So when the DIY store’s management’s decided to offload their non-core plant business, I had already gained a competitive edge in the online market,” he recalls.
The website as a virtual storefront
The website is 123planten.nl’s virtual storefront. Its further development, scaling and maintenance are all outsourced.
“It is a good example of how you can run a tech savvy business without actually having to be tech savvy yourself,” says Ingen Housz.
He adds, “Most importantly is that your company shows up when people Google certain terms. For that, you can use Google’s pay per click (PPC) -online ads which appear next to the relevant searches. Secondly, you need to increase organic traffic to your website. Its performance directly correlates to your Google score. So you should ask yourself whether your site is mobile friendly enough and if it loads quickly enough. Is the site’s architecture clear enough, can users easily navigate and engage with it. We can talk for hours about Google ranking and no one can tell you exactly how it works.”
Providing the information the user need is crucial. “That’s why I have built a 100 per cent indoor plants focused website. Keep your product range small, be a true expert in your field,” advises Ingen Housz. He freely admits that in terms of storytelling, there is room for some improvement.
“Through our current website we sell both to individual consumers (accounting for 90 per cent of turnover) and interior landscape specialists. However, we will soon separate our online presence to create a B2B and a B2C website with two different customer experiences online.”
The fun part of the work
The company’s home base is at Royal FloraHolland, a quintessential B2B environment. But working for online shoppers feels good.
Ingen Housz comments, “I am perfectly happy with serving end consumers directly, although customer experiences come with many questions. Our FAQ page uses actual customers’ questions, not questions we think they should be asking. It helps with demonstrating our expertise and building relationships and it also saves time. The fun part of our work is to make people happy and help them enjoy their plants for a long time. Our unique selling point incorporates our in-depth knowledge of the horticultural sector and the product. I dare say we have more knowledge than an average garden centre.”
But running an online indoor plant warehouse exposes the organisation’s reputation to heavy scrutiny and online reviews, both good and bad. How does he deal with the negative ones? “You cannot avoid them being posted. What you can do is to deal with their problem and ask your customer to update it once the problem is resolved.
On average, we get a 9.4 out of 10 quality scores, so there is only a minor chance that we are leaving customers unhappy.”
Extensive product portfolio
123planten.nl has more than eight years of experience. It has built a great network of supplying growers, with household names in houseplants such as Ammerlaan, Fachjan, and Nieuwkoop.
The company purchases soil-grown, and there is a far more limited number of hydroculture plants direct from the grower; nothing comes via the auction clock.
The product portfolio is extensive: small cacti and succulents and small to medium-sized and large tropical foliage plants. A 40cm tall sansevieria ‘Fernwood’ in pot size 12cm sells at €12, a 75cm tall spathiphyllum ‘Vivaldi’ in a 17cm pot at €13. The tropical foliage beauties such as a 130 cm tall strelitzia reginae retails at €165 (pot size 40), 100cm tall dracaena ‘Janet’ in pot size 19 at €20 and a 160 cm tall kentia howea forsteriana comes at €275 (pot size 25cm).
The company sells a small number of faux houseplants, and Ingen Housz candidly admits that he has thought twice before doing so.
“At our company, everything focuses on customer centricity, so when an office needs 100 living plants and five artificial plants for spots where there is no daylight you need to fulfil their demand.
In sourcing the artificial plants, we use a network of resellers. That’s why our faux plants are more expensive than the e-commerce giants with direct imports from China. However, faux houseplants is not a category I want to expand, and these products mainly serve to complete the product offer.”
Ingen Housz attributes between 70 up to 80 per cent of his sales to living indoor plants and the remainder to hardware such as planters, ceramic pots, and sundries.
Prominently absent is the company’s range of flowering houseplants and there is a reason behind this nonexistence.
Ingen Housz explains, “Currently, demand from the home market is not so strong. What’s more, flowering houseplants are generally smaller-sized and therefore suited for mass market. The bigger the plant, the harder to transport and the easier to sell online. Also at stake is that online buyers when seeing a picture of a flowering plant they have no idea how much flowers it will have upon delivery and how long these will last.”
123planten.nl prides itself on selling farm-fresh plants sourced directly from the plant nursery. Ingen Housz elaborates, “In most of the cases, the plants that arrive in our premises have already been sold through the website. For example, the plant which has been bought on Monday will arrive at us on Tuesday to be shipped the same day to the consumer.”
Contrary to the traditional wholesaler, 123planten.nl has little to no stock, except top-selling plants such as monstera and strelitzia, which have such quick turn around that having some extra plants at hand is advantageous.
He says, “In our new building we will have more depth and breadth of inventory allowing us to shorten the supply chain and speed up shipments.”
State of the trade
Speaking of top sellers, how is the state of the plant trade? Ingen Housz notes, “Under normal circumstances, we sell around 800 different soil-grown plants, but at the moment, in between 200-300 products are sold out as the market is exploding. And there is no way to source them.
Even growers don’t precisely know what is going on because Dutch garden centres are still closed (mid-April), so we think that other countries are absorbing large volumes of indoor plants.
And it is, of course, hard to predict how long this situation will last.
Even if pre-Covid-19, houseplants were already riding a wave of popularity, the tumultuous year 2020 marked an incredible sustained growth as shopping behaviour shifted from offline to online. ”We ship around 2,000 plants and this figure represents ten euro plants and also plants that are sold for a few hundred euros. For this year, we predict a turnover between five to seven million euros, while pre-Covid this was 1.5 million.”
Expanding the European reach
In such a buoyant market, the one-stop online shop for houseplants is working hard behind the scenes to expand its European reach. The German 123zimmerpflanzen.de is up and running, the French version is a work in progress, and as soon as the trading relationships post- Brexit have normalised, Ingen Housz is ready to venture into the UK market.
He says, “The advantage of a webshop is that you don’t need a stock of plants. So your catalogue largely supersides the average inventory of a garden centre. Especially Germans love to be spoilt for choice in exclusive, speciality plants. The German shopper is willing to pay an additional price but expects the highest quality, and any issue to be solved.”
123planten.nl uses online data and analytics to understand their customers better and identify trends.“In summer, people look for drought tolerant plants while in winter they search for low light tolerant specimens. Such trending helps us to create website content addressing the buyer’s specific needs that season. This problem-solving and expectations approach for your content and catalogue, will lead to increased sales.”
Having no plants in stock, sourcing directly from the grower does not mean the company can omit its responsibility to deliver healthy plants. With growers worldwide sounding the alarm over an ever-increasing threat from plant pests and diseases and diminishing pesticides options available for the greenhouse growers, how difficult is it to keep 123plants healthy?
Ingen Housz comments, “Let me start by saying that reducing chemicals is a good thing for the planet and its people. The reality is that a 100 per cent bug-free houseplant is becoming increasingly challenging. The more open you are, the more comfortable your customer will be. It is even more important to inform them how they can remove pests and diseases, ideally by using biological crop agents. As such we have teamed up with Belgium-based Biogroei (a distributor of Biobest) to offer customers a range of biological crop controls. Biocontrols will continue to gain momentum, prices will drop while the product will increasingly become available in smaller consumer packaging. And customers will for sure become less reluctant to use them because they are so tiny that you hardly see them.”
While 123planten offers next-day delivery on orders before 3pm, quality is related to the product and the packaging and services. “Dispatch is presumably the toughest part of this business. We carefully pack our plants to avoid damage but are always looking into way to better secure plants during transit. Own delivery might reduce damage on the plant’s journey to the customers but that’s only profitable when dealing with smaller volumes and distribution areas.”
With e-commerce shopping, it is no secret that customers expect not only free shipping but also free return shipping. What is 123planten.nl’s policy?
Ingen Housz explains, “We offer free shipping on orders over €60.
In terms of free returns, I would like to imagine a future in which we cut down on this behaviour. Returns attack a company’s profit margins prompting the supplier to increase prices. What’s more, returning plants is not the same as returning a pair of shoes. It would be best if you had secure packaging to return them appropriately. Fortunately, our return rates are less than one per cent.”
A renewed online gold rush
There is no doubt that Covid-19 caused a boom in webshops. The big players, such as 123planten.nl, Fleurdirect, Bakker, and Plantsome, are now joined by several newcomers in what feels like a renewed online gold rush. But Ingen Housz faces the future with confidence.
He says, “Generally speaking, in our webshop, you will find prices that are on average lower than most of the garden centres. We are not the cheapest nor the most expensive option in the market. We focus on providing a complete package with an easy-to-navigate website, quick delivery, quality plants and impeccable after-sales.
Other websites tell me that their primary purpose is selling as many as possible plants. That’s not the way we are doing business. As long as you stay focused on improving your customer’s journey, turnover will come by itself.”
The global health crisis took many indoor plant growers to build their websites. Does Ingen Housz feel this is a conflicting business? He answers confidently, “When you are a plant nursery, you are not a webshop. I feel is that many plant nurseries underestimate online business, it’s much more time-consuming and complex than people think. The idea is: you set up a website, and plants will automatically sell. But fortunately, we live in a free world. I wish them the best of luck. Many will give up in the long-run, only a few will make it.”