With his interest in horticulture nurtured during his time at Flying Brands and latterly at S E Marshalls, it was a natural progression for Paul Pates to head up direct marketing at Mr Fothergill’s Seeds when he joined them back in 2013. He is now MD of its new subsidiary, Greenregis, which was established in July 2021.
Q: What was the thinking behind setting up Greenregis?
A: The main Mr Fothergill’s business is focused on the production and supply of packet seed to home gardeners, across retail, in various export markets and direct to consumer. However, 60 per cent of D2C sales are non-seed, with Woolmans (ornamental brand) not selling seed at all. The D2C part of the business has always operated as a stand-alone division, with separate staffing, warehousing and CRM system. Setting up Greenregis, allows us to focus on other products, channels and set-up new brands, unconnected with the core seed business. It also allows the main business to fully focus on its seed expertise.
Q: How has the Pandemic affected business?
A: During lockdown, we saw a huge spike in seed and plant sales, as people turned to gardening in their enforced leisure time. We found younger people becoming interested too which is good to see. Being outside, gardening and growing your own really does nourish the mind as well as the body. In 2020 we saw weekly sales matching those of entire months’ worth, and at one stage during April 2020 we had to turn off our website for a week, to cope with a huge influx of orders by phone and email. Packing and dispatching orders was difficult due to the need for social distancing. We operated a 3-shift pattern, enabling working 24 hours a day during the peak. We did experience some products becoming out of stock, especially hardware items, as Brexit and the Lockdown caused huge supply chain issues. In addition, our seed stocks were in high demand and that’s something you can’t just grow more of overnight! We have commitments with our growers to produce crops years in advance, so you can’t just turn on supply to meet unprecedented demand. Many of our competitors shut down their retail operation and many Garden Centres were left in the lurch. We stayed supporting our retailers throughout.
Q: Setting up a new division during a pandemic must have been a challenge. How did you cope?
A: It was clear that we needed more space, but only had a short window in which affect a move. We wanted to stay local to the main business and were lucky to find the perfect site a few miles away in Newmarket. We made a moved to our new premises in October 2021 and were fully operational by end of November, ready for our peak in January-April. The site has given us 3 times the space we had before. We mostly employ local staff, 30 are full time. During lockdown many were able to work from home as we have a cloud-based CRM system. In peak times we rank up to around 60 staff. They undertake all the seed and hardware picking and dispatch, and we use a third-party distributor for our live plants. Our in-house customer service team is supported by a third-party call centre called Open Contact in Norwich. They handle overflow calls and customer service issues and we’ve worked with them successfully for six years now.
Q: Tell us more about your marketing mix and communications strategy
A: We use the Abacus data pool and test a variety of cold lists successfully, across all three brands. In 2017 we undertook more house-file profiling and segmentation which enabled us to be more targeted.
We email customers 3-4 times a week. In January 2021 we launched the ‘Mr Fothergill’s Big Green Gardening Book’ a 490-page catalogue, offering flowers, seed, veg and plants. It increased our average order value massively and provided customers with a one-stop shop. A physical catalogue is still very important to our customer base. Our customers are older with more time on their hands, they like to read and enjoy browsing the catalogues. We can also target different segments of the database more cost-effectively. We regularly test different catalogues, formats and offers to increase retention and drive customer reactivation.
With help from TA Design, we relaunched our DT Brown catalogue last year. We borrowed heavily from our heritage (since 1908) to give the catalogue a nostalgic look and feel – adding lots of content, hints, tips and interesting facts. We added a special growing diary that customers can use to keep track of their sowing and harvests and even added a wipe clean, laminated cover for longevity in the potting shed! We mail during August, September and October and again from January. We then do smaller supplementary mailings in February, March and April. We try and prolong the summer season by offering larger potted products, later in the season.
Q: What CRM system do you use?
A: We use an Oracle owned system called NetSuite, which we introduced as an early adopter about 8 years ago. It is a cloud solution that delivers a real-time, 360-degree view of our customers.
Q: What percentage of your orders are now online?
A: It differs by brand but approximately 80 per cent of our orders come in online – mostly driven by offline activity. It’s important to have a multi-channel approach and ensure that it’s as easy as possible for customers to buy and transact.
Q: What techniques do you use to cross-sell and upsell customers?
A: We will target customers with different offers/upsells depending on their purchase history. For example, selling potato fertiliser to people who’ve bought potatoes. We also add small hardware focused catalogues within our product despatches to help upsell and include postcards promoting our other brands from time to time. For Mr Fothergill’s we used to send a seed catalogue to seed buyers and a plant catalogue to plant buyers, but now combine the whole range into one offering. This has seen response rates and average order values increase dramatically.
We use cold list data from Abacus, insert mini catalogues into gardening and national press, as well as undertaking a fair amount of off the page advertising. We’ve experimented with door drops in recent years and target online recruitment via PPC and google shopping feeds.
Q: What advice would you offer to your fellow direct marketers?
A: Always keep an eye on your numbers. The beauty of direct marketing is that it is measurable, so you need to make sure that you do measure. I am an advocate of segmentation and data analysis and modelling.
Q: With hindsight anything you would have done differently in your role at Mr Fothergill’s?
A: The pandemic has forced us to quickly reshape the business to be able to cope with increased demand and customer expectation. We’ve always known that we’d have to grow and develop, so in hindsight I would have done this earlier and more quickly to be better prepared for the challenges ahead.
Q: Why do you value your membership of the DCA?
A: Direct commerce is a fast-moving industry with a lot of shared issues, problems and opportunities irrespective of the type of product you sell. The DCA helps to support businesses (large or small) across the whole sector, by providing an opportunity to come together in congenial surroundings to share ideas, discuss best practices and help to resolve the challenges that we all face day to day.
Working as part of a wider business that has very little understanding of this industry, the DCA provides me (and my team) with great support and networking opportunities that we simply wouldn’t have without them.
Q: How will the Greenregis brand develop in the future eg diversification?
A: The Greenregis brand itself won’t be developed as it is a vehicle for a whole stable of distinct, separate brands. We will be focusing on growing our core businesses alongside launching new, standalone brands. Whilst our current plans are based around home gardening, the shared infrastructure that we’ve created will allow us to explore completely different product categories in the future.
As with any business, it is always a case of having the time and resources to try new things, but we do try and continue to innovate. We have a lot of things to focus on, particularly online, such as the re-launch of Mr Fothergill’s website to make it more responsive and concentrating on new customer recruitment to drive database growth. We’re looking to launch some new brands in 2022 – so watch this space!
As an allotment holder myself, I’m particularly proud of the growth and development of the D.T. Brown brand – it’s one that I hold dear to my heart and I’ve really enjoyed journey that we’ve been on with it.
Interview by Claire Hart, Associate Contributor, Direct Commerce Magazine