Embracing online sales

Features - Cover Story

Thorsen’s Greenhouse leverages uncommon connections to create a thriving wholesale e-commerce houseplant business.

When Doug Thorsen launched Thorsen’s Greenhouse in 2000, he was in familiar territory. He’d just spent 18 years managing the Delaware, Ohio, greenhouse, helping its previous owner expand their wholesale business.

A lot was different then. The houseplant explosion of the 1970s was a distant memory and accessible e-commerce for small businesses was little more than a dream. But Thorsen’s focused production approach positioned the company well for what would come.

Under Thorsen’s ownership, the company’s growth continued as he built on core customers and expanded his base in the floral trade, supermarkets and big-box retailers, including regional Costco stores.

Today, the year-round wholesale business remains focused on tropical and foliage plants, seasonal indoor blooming plants and outdoor blooming annuals, with an added boost from a seasonal retail store.

As with many family-owned greenhouse operations, his three children grew up in the business, then explored other paths that sometimes led back home.

His wife, Cathy, recently rejoined the company to handle human resources. Son Michael manages Thorsen’s blooming plant production. And Allison Thorsen, Doug’s daughter and Thorsen’s operations manager, is the driving force behind the company’s wholesale e-commerce houseplant boom.

Thorsen's e-commerce sales doubled in '21 compared to '20. And the company expects '22 sales to be comperable to last year.

E-commerce aspirations

Like her siblings, Allison grew up working the greenhouse. “My dad used to pay me five cents for every ring I put on a poinsettia or hydrangea when I was growing up,” she recalls.

While studying fashion merchandising in college, she managed Thorsen’s seasonal retail store. But after college, New York City called.

She spent five years as a buyer in the e-commerce home industry, working for e-commerce fashion and home retailer Zulily and luxury furniture and home décor retailer One King’s Lane.

Then one day in late 2018, her boss suggested she tackle a new category: live houseplants.

She spent the next year refining online houseplant sales — from shipping to managing the front end — while wholesaling houseplants from the family business to e-retailers part time.

By the fall of 2019, Allison decided it was time to move back to Ohio and rejoin the family business full time. “We decided to really go after it and create an e-commerce arm of the business,” she says.

Thorsen’s wholesale houseplant strategy targeted e-commerce home retailers by offering affordable finished products that those internet-based businesses could retail to online shoppers, shipped straight from Thorsen’s Greenhouse to consumer homes nationwide.

“At the time, there were people selling a lot of different plants in grower pots. Then there was a lot of more expensive plants and ceramic pots at a much higher price point,” Allison says.

“Our strategy was to go in the middle of the market. We offered customers plants in pot covers that were decorative, but they were made of metal or plastics. That way, they still were affordably priced and offered a customer that finished product [consumers] could just take out of the box and put in their home.”

Allison’s e-commerce home industry connections and Doug’s decades of horticulture industry experience and relationships were a perfect fit.

She started building the e-commerce business with previous contacts from the home décor industry. Her experience ensured she knew how to reach out to potential new customers and pitch Thorsen’s Greenhouse for their online houseplant sales.

Online home retailers remain Thorsen’s primary market for e-commerce houseplant sales. “That’s worked out really well for us,” Allison says. “Of course, consumer behavior shifted during the pandemic, and we’ve benefited from that. So it’s been really great. So far, it’s a great addition to the business.”

Allison used her experience from home decor e-commerce to launch the nursery's online sales division.

Plant production and curation

Thorsen’s still operates on its original 20-acre site, but an additional 18-acre growing range is under construction three miles down the road. Under Michael’s management, the new facility is dedicated to growing blooming annuals for big-box stores.

“Construction has definitely been an ongoing thing. It was supposed to be fully operational in February, and we just got gas,” Allison says

Only a small portion of the tropical and foliage plant production is done in-house. Most of their houseplants are sourced from Florida, where Thorsen’s works with about 20 different family-owned farms.

Allison notes that, while there are lots of excellent brokers and suppliers, Doug has done business with many of these smaller farms for more than 30 years. And those farmers have introduced them to other small specialty growers as well.

“It’s just nice to work with smaller businesses,” she says. “You typically get great quality plants, and you’re always working with the same people. You know a little bit more about when crops will be ready and things like that. It’s definitely a little bit more to manage, working with so many different growers than just a broker or something, but I think it helps us have a differentiated assortment.”

The year-round wholesale business supports about 45 employees. That number swells to 85 to 95 in spring. Much of that spring bump traces to Thorsen’s relationship with Costco, which started with a few stores about 15 years ago.

Each year, the Costco business has expanded in both the number of stores and the products Thorsen’s provides. They service Costco’s Ohio stores, plus select stores in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Indiana.

“We’re definitely very busy during the springtime servicing Costco,” Allison says.

Allison and Liz Shipkowski ensure the customers are getting top-quality plants.

Spring also brings the seasonal retail store that opens with blooming annuals in April through June, then reopens later in the year for mums and again for poinsettias. “Our seasonal retail store has gone really well in recent years. … That’s just a business that continues to grow and grow,” she says.

Future retail expansion is uncertain, but under consideration. Right now, the retail store opens in greenhouse space that’s in production most of the year, and parking is limited. “But it potentially is something we’d like to do in the future,” she says

While foliage plants make an appearance in the seasonal retail store, most of the business’s houseplant action stays with e-commerce.

In addition to Thorsen’s wholesale e-commerce houseplant business, the company launched its own retail e-commerce platform, “The Houseplant Collective by Thorsen’s Greenhouse,” in June 2021. “It just kind of was a natural next step to have our own direct-to-consumer website,” Allison says.

Trends in sales and plants

When Thorsen’s launched its e-commerce arm in 2019, it entered the market with 20 different options offered through a single online home retailer. As 2020 started, those offerings increased significantly. The business expanded to work with 10 e-commerce retailers and did roughly 20 times as much in sales.

Allison attributes much of 2020’s increase to the natural evolution of the expanding online business, helped along by a pandemic boost. In 2021, houseplant sales doubled 2020’s totals.

She shares that she’s heard from many big-box and garden center customers, florists and e-commerce retailers that this year’s houseplant sales are down from pandemic highs. But Thorsen’s 2022 e-commerce sales remain comparable to last year.

“I think it’s just because we’re always continually expanding with our partners and the plants we’re offering and kind of just evolving with the customer,” she says.

Allison says that working with online home retailers that sell to end consumers is different than selling to brick-and-mortar stores.

“For every retailer you’re working with, you might have different pricing because of their pricing structure, whether you’re paying for shipping or they have a promotional strategy … The way that we view it is each e-commerce retailer is its own store, and we have to really tailor what we’re offering to that customer,” she explains.

When adding new plants to their offerings, Allison looks for plants that are trendy, fun and affordable. Price point remains a major consideration. The average price point for Thorsen’s houseplants is $19.95.

“When we first started selling online, it seemed super high, but then when you looked at it compared to other sellers in the market, we’re actually one of the lower-priced ones, surprisingly,” she says. She also works to add new plants to their offerings at least once a month, which helps boost sales across the board.

Buying patterns are changing. When Thorsen’s started with e-commerce houseplants, Allison says nearly every consumer wanted a plant with a decorative container — a finished product right out of the box. Now, consumers have shifted toward buying plants in nursery pots and using containers they already have at home.

Other plant trends include low-light plants, pet-friendly plants, plant-parent plants and anything that involves easy care.

Retail consumers on “The Houseplant Collective” can shop by plant, style or curated bundles of giftable sets of top-selling plants. The site also provides in-depth plant care information that helps support consumers who buy from Thorsen’s or their home retailer customers.

A strong millennial base is behind most of Thorsen’s houseplant trends, but Allison says they have many older customers, and she sees younger Gen Z customers getting into houseplants as well. About 95% of the company’s e-commerce customers are women.

Is houseplant e-commerce for you?

For anyone considering starting an e-commerce division, Allison suggests spending time on Google Shopping to look up the plants you would like to sell and see their online market value. “Typically, online plants have a much higher market value than in-store,” she says.

Once you know what you could get for your plants, the next decision is how to do it. That might be with your own website or by starting a shop on sites such as Etsy.com or selling through Amazon’s marketplace. After that, it’s decide how to market, including social media and other marketing efforts to bring customers to your plants.

The biggest question for most greenhouses is the shipping piece. Allison recommends doing something she wishes she had done: Consider the plants you want to sell and ship, then order them from other online growers to see how they’re packaged and shipped — good and bad. Then work with local companies to get quotes on boxes and packaging materials to come up with the shipping solution that works best for your plants.

As Thorsen’s moves forward and e-commerce becomes more accessible to everyone, Allison encourages greenhouse owners and operators not to be intimidated by what you don’t know.

When she started, she didn’t know anything about internet marketing or search engine optimization (SEO). But she learned. And so can you, she says, pointing to online courses, hands-on learning and mentors.

“I think the biggest thing is just to keep learning. We’re fortunate to have so many resources,” she says. “There’s so many opportunities to learn new skills. I think kind of staying in that state of continuously learning is what makes all the difference.”

Jolene is a freelance writer specializing in the horticulture and specialty agriculture industries. jolene@jolenehansen.com