How a Seattle Nursery Survived the Shift to Online Business

The pandemic forced Plant Shop to transition quickly to a delivery model. A software application was the solution to optimizing the daily routing plan.  

When the “walk-in” experience is no longer feasible, even small neighborhood businesses must adjust.

Founded in 2017, the Seattle-based Plant Shop spent its first three years relying almost entirely on foot traffic and personal visits by customers. Then came COVID-19, and like virtually every retail operation of any size, it had to shift to online sales to survive 

“In the span of a week or so, we had to go from being 95% in-person to 100% online,” recalls owner Ryan Tansey. “It was the only opportunity we had to keep the lights on.”

In the early months of the pandemic, few customers were interested in ordering online and picking up at the nursery, so Plant Shop had to gear up its delivery service. The operation was limited in scope, involving just two vans staying within Seattle city limits — but that didn’t mean it was easy to pull off.

Tansey calls the shop’s early efforts at fulfilling online orders “a nightmare.” The process was entirely manual and paper-based, and “it was taking us the better part of an hour every morning to figure out a roughly optimized route.”

Tansey struggled with the improvised system for two or three weeks, before deciding that he needed a technology solution to figure out the most efficient routing. After researching the possibilities online and soliciting user recommendations, he settled on Circuit, a vendor of route-planning software.

Other options were either too complex and expensive, or couldn’t accommodate multiple vehicles. Circuit, says Tansey, “hit the sweet spot.”

Circuit wasn’t that much older than Plant Shop; it was launched in the United Kingdom just five years ago. The focus from the start was aiding in last-mile deliveries, says chief executive officer Jack Underwood.

Even the smallest fleets can run into complications when trying to serve multiple customers, Underwood says. Information needs to be served up to drivers on a timely basis, including drop-off points, time windows, location of packages in the vehicle, and special instructions.

Circuit’s software is largely self-service, so there wasn’t the need for a lengthy person-to-person sales process. Plant Shop needed to ramp up quickly to hold on to its customer base and compete with other businesses that were also going online.

The software allows the user to create a daily route plan that calculates the best order of deliveries for businesses with up to 70,000 drivers, Underwood. Plant Shop was far from being in that class, but it faced its own set of challenges because it hadn’t relied on deliveries prior to the pandemic, and was essentially “starting from scratch,” Underwood says.

Tansey says the software was “pretty much functional day one, minute one of trying it out.” Even so, the business struggled to meet customer demand in the early days of implementing the application.

At the beginning of each day, Plant Shop inputs all order data into the application, which then auto-generates the best route for making multiple deliveries. The system takes into account the relative proximity of customers, as well as recommended detours around potential traffic blockages. In addition, Plant Shop can see where drivers are at all times — information that comes in handy when customers enquire about the status of their orders.

As the pandemic subsides, Plant Shop has been able to return to servicing walk-in sales, although up to 20% of its orders are still placed online. Tansey expects to keep using the Circuit software to handle the delivery portion of its business. “It’s a service that not a lot of other shops in the area are offering,” he says. “It’s a very helpful advantage.”

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