Knox Nursery Expands to Web, Offers Annuals and Tips to Home Gardeners

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Knox Nursery Inc. this month launched a Web site that lets home gardeners place direct orders for flowering annuals that the Orlando, FL, company will then grow in its greenhouses and ship along with fertilizer and care instructions.


The site, located at www.homegardenerdirect.com, offers 127 species of annuals, ranging from snapdragons, dusty millers and marigolds to begonias, celosias and petunias. Customers have the option of having the nursery coordinate orders so that plants with different growth rates can be delivered at the same time.


As the giant flower producer reaches out to the consumer market for the first time, president Bruce Knox said the broader purpose of the site -- which also gives tips and advice on plant care -- is to teach the private market about home gardening in general.


"We're not trying to get that customer to stop going to Lowes or their local Home Depot or anything like that. That is a staple that we hope will always stay the same," Knox said. "But we feel that consumers really need to be educated; and the more successful the consumer is at home gardening, the more plants they will buy."


He added that he is unaware of any online competition in the annuals category, though perennials are available elsewhere via the Internet.


Knox's business is primarily wholesale, and its customers include Home Depot and Lowes. Sales figures for 1998 were not available, but Knox had revenue of $5.6 million in 1997. The company announced that it expects "significant" revenue increases as a result of its online offering.


The plants Knox offers through its site take between four and 13 weeks to finish, and cost less than $30. Prices include shipping, and orders are delivered via Federal Express two-day service to help ensure freshness. Site visitors can view basic care instructions, such as optimum light and temperature conditions, when they're browsing for individual plants.


Though the site now offers only flowering annuals, the company is considering adding vegetable-bearing plants next year, said Knox information services manager Chris Millar, who helped develop the site. Maintenance and design work was handled by GrowerNet Solutions Inc., Riverview, FL, which specializes in Web sites for horticultural companies.


The company plans to steer more traffic to the site with an ad in the Parade Magazine insert of several Sunday newspapers during the first half of February. The company expects the ad to reach about 22 million people, mostly on the east coast. Knox also takes orders through a toll-free number that it puts on banner ads throughout the Web.


The company recently opened a largely automated facility that grows "plugs," or baby starter plants. Relative to other plants, plugs yield higher profits per square foot. Though the company now offers only 127 plant types through its Web site, the nursery produces more than 1,500 varieties in five trade sizes.


"We feel this is a great move forward for our entire industry," Knox said of the new site and the planned advertising that will promote it. "Seeing garden products advertised in mainstream America, things like that aren't normally done in our industry. So we're trying to raise the awareness on plants and educate the consumer."
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