Officially opened in April 2000, Crocus is an online garden centre offering over 4,000 different plant varieties – the biggest choice of plants in the UK. Loved by both top garden designers and amateurs alike and a regular at the Chelsea Flower Show, Crocus has an enviable reputation and has won many awards, not only for its gardens and plants but also for best practice in business.
Whilst Crocus normally only retails online or through its wholesale outlet, it opens its doors to the public on four special days throughout the year. The first of these days for 2011 was held Saturday just gone (16 April) so I headed off to Windlesham for a girls’ day out.
I had planned to track down some bargain plants and to have a day discovering what goes on behind the scenes but I also found myself being wowed by best practice in business and amazed by just how much we can learn from the logistics involved in growing and selling plants!
Much of what I gleaned was by and large thanks to a tour given by Mark Fane (one of the founders of Crocus) and Mark Straver (a top plantsman and member of the wholesale team).
Learning from plants
Aka process driven excellence
The organic nature of growing and selling plants creates a business model that is inherently dependent upon planning and logistics to an extent that is somewhat unusual within other business contexts. A plant is not a product that can be quickly manufactured and plucked from a shelf in a warehouse. Rather, it is a growing entity that literally has a life of its own, subject to nature and innumerable other factors.
To produce prize winning plants for Chelsea, the growing process must ideally begin almost a year in advance. Throughout the year, plants are juggled between the outdoors and 10 polytunnels each with slightly different climactic conditions (or even sent abroad to Spain as in the case of the 2010 Telegraph Garden) to maintain, speed up or slow down their growth as necessary, ensuring that they are in peak condition for the all important show dates. For the online store and wholesale, stocks must be carefully managed, rare and unusual plant requests sourced from around the world, buying trends predicted in advance and much, much more. To thrive and succeed in this industry, excellence in planning and logistics are an absolute must.
The challenges of Chelsea
Aka innovation and project management
The Chelsea Flower Show itself intensifies this need for excellence and Crocus’ results speak for themselves: in the last 9 years, they have won 3 Best in Shows and 11 gold medals for gardens that they have built and grown plants for.
Project management is vital and Crocus are now in talks with the Telegraph to begin planning their 2012/2013 gardens. In the 20 days running up to the opening of the Chelsea Flower Show, an entire garden (including hard landscaping and fully grown trees) must be built and planted from scratch.
Year on year Crocus perfect and hone their project management skills and develop innovative ways to manage the logistics involved. In April of this year, work began at the Crocus nursery to build the dry stone walls for the Telegraph Garden, ensuring that the sections can simply be transported to Chelsea and pieced together, potentially saving huge amounts of time on building the walls from scratch. Luciano Giubbilei (this year’s Laurent-Perrier garden designer) also visited Crocus to position the trees for his garden in advance, ensuring that they can simply be planted in their desired location at Chelsea and valuable time is not wasted. And this is just the tip of the project management and planning iceberg!
In an article published by the Telegraph, April 2009, Mark Fane described himself as “the control freaks’ control freak” and the author observed that “Those who don’t have Fane’s quasi-military discipline are often seen planting frantically the night before”. It is precisely such planning and discipline that wins awards!
Subject to the elements
Aka disaster contingency planning
Another factor that is intensified and brought into sharp focus by the organic nature of plants is the need for disaster contingency planning. To ensure that Crocus can supply exactly the right quantity of plants in peak condition for the dates of the Chelsea Flower Show, they are currently growing around 8,000-10,000 plants for this year’s show (for a garden requiring 30 specimens of a particular plant, Crocus will grow 100). Any plants not used in the show can be sold to consumers once they are ready.
Crocus also carefully monitor their polytunnels for signs of pests or disease – perils that become more of a problem in a warmer environment. Fans are used to ensure air circulation and at the first signs of any potential problems, action is taken. Any large scale problems of this kind that had not been nipped in the bud early (excuse the pun!) could be disastrous.
For a business that is dependent upon its living, growing products, the discipline of anticipating potential problems and ensuring that contingency plans are either already in place or can be quickly actioned is another absolute must.
Aka end-to-end excellence
And finally, as evidenced by Crocus’ award-winning Chelsea pedigree, Crocus are in the business of creating and delivering excellence. However, their attention to detail doesn’t just start and end with either plants or gardens; rather, it extends throughout their business.
Not long after they started out, Crocus won the Yell.com Best Commerce Site Award in 2001, beating the likes of Sainsburys.co.uk. In the same year, they won the small business category of the Sunday Telegraph’s @chievement Award, alongside other category winners such as Tesco.com and Majestic.com. And more recently, they have also collected a design award for their custom-designed packaging.
Crocus deliver excellence in customer service throughout their shopping experience and are rightly proud of the fact that their return rate is currently under 1%. Whilst their success and reputation are enviable, once you begin to look behind the scenes these results are also understandable. Excellence in business really does make a difference and we could all learn a great deal from the lessons Crocus has to teach us.
To keep in touch with Crocus’ journey to Chelsea, check out their Chelsea Flower Show blog
Update 25 May 2011
More excellent results for Crocus as they are the proud winners of not only two Gold Medals at Chelsea (one each for their two gardens) but also Best in Show!