In this captivating interview conducted by Miss Shudeshna Pandey, we had the opportunity to delve into the fascinating world of gardening and its evolving relationship with the realm of e-commerce.
Mr. Shishir Agrawal, an expert from Urban Plants, shared valuable insights about the challenges, trends, and future prospects of this unique industry. From the importance of customer-centricity to the logistics involved in delivering delicate plants, this interview offered a comprehensive understanding of the business aspect of gardening.
Let’s take a closer look at the highlights of our engaging conversation.
Shudeshna: Today, we’ll talk to our special guest, Mr. Shishir Agrawal, CEO and founder of Urban Plants. He’ll be sharing his insights and knowledge about gardening, plants, and equipment. So let’s begin the interview. Thank you for accepting our request, and we are pleased to have you here.
Mr. Shishir: The pleasure is mine too.
S: Would you briefly describe yourself to the viewers of Plants Craze?
Mr. Shishir: I’m an entrepreneur who has been working in the area of organic waste management for the past five years. During this time, we developed a product called the Vertical Garden Tower. We designed this product specifically for urban consumers who face space constraints. Our objective was to allow customers to grow their own plants and make compost from the food waste generated daily, even in limited spaces. We introduced this product in January 2020, and coincidentally, it gained traction when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and people were confined to their homes. This period helped us realize the importance of waste management and gardening.
Additionally, our product was selected by Punjab Agriculture University as part of its incubation program. We have also been involved in several incubation programs, including the Pusa scheme and the acceleration program by NARAM Institute in Hyderabad, the National Agriculture Research Management Institute. Furthermore, we received a grant from the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India.
Initially, our focus was solely on the Vertical Garden Tower with Composter. We received a positive response, which led us to explore the idea of covering our customers’ entire terrace or balcony. People who purchased our product expressed the need for more options. Recognizing this opportunity, we began working on creating a hyperlocal gardening marketplace. We have onboarded 1000+ sellers across India, including nurseries, plant sellers, and garden equipment suppliers. These sellers have their own shops on our website, similar to what Amazon and Flipkart do, but focusing solely on the gardening segment, and customers can buy directly from these sellers. Over the past two and a half years, we have perfected our supply chain and established a stable network of suppliers. We have been serving our customers, and more recently, we have entered the B2B segment. This involves catering to corporate industries by providing plants for bulk waste management requirements and horticultural services solutions. In summary, this is an overview of what we have been working on thus far.
S: Well, that’s interesting to learn about the background of how Urban Plants came to life. Looking back, were you always interested in gardening, or did your education lead you toward the plant sector? Could you briefly describe your educational background and how it aligns with the field of gardening?
Mr. Shishir: That’s an interesting question, actually. I completed my MBA in 2003 and have nearly 20 years of work experience. After my MBA, I started my career with a campus placement at Hero Honda Group. Later, I was selected to work at HDFC Bank and remained a part of the financial industry until 2014. After spending considerable time in the financial sector, I realized I wanted to become an entrepreneur. I’ve always been fascinated by people who run their own businesses. In 2014, I began working on various initiatives. Since I didn’t come from a family business background, I experimented with different ideas and permutations. Initially, I was interested in the waste renewable sector and started working in the solar industry. Eventually, I ventured into waste management and composting solutions, which I found quite intriguing. That’s how this journey began, and regarding my love for plants, I have always had an affinity for them. However, I didn’t have a specific horticultural background. But after working in this field for the past two and a half years, I can confidently say that my love for plants and gardening has grown significantly. I appreciate the science behind the whole process.
S: That’s interesting. The concept of hyperlocal gardening is still relatively new. How did the whole concept come about?
Mr. Shishir: Initially, we wanted to create an aggregator model. The hyperlocal concept was slightly late to emerge, although I must admit that we haven’t fully achieved the hyperlocal aspect. One challenge we faced with the aggregator model is that many of the suppliers or sellers we work with lack education and professionalism. We encountered situations where we received orders, but the sellers were unavailable or faced other issues. Instead of relying on specific sellers, we decided to create a trading platform where we can easily access and deliver materials from wherever they are available. Another challenge with plants is that they are often seasonal in nature and can go out of stock.
Additionally, being perishable, we have faced scenarios where the material was available one day but went bad before we could dispatch it the next day. These are the issues we deal with. Although we strive to achieve the hyperlocal ideal, we haven’t fully accomplished it. However, the aggregator model is a win-win situation for both the sellers and us. We operate on a zero-inventory model, and the sellers, who may be located in remote areas, benefit from having a platform where we continuously provide deliveries through them.
S: Okay, that’s quite interesting. Your website has a wide range of SKs. How many SKs do you have?
Mr. Shishir: We have more than 200 SKs on our website.
PC: That’s quite a lot to manage, indeed. Do you have a system that makes stock readily available whenever an order is placed?
Mr. Shishir: The zero inventory model has advantages and disadvantages. The benefit is that you don’t need to maintain any stock, so you save costs on storage, warehousing, labor, and other expenses. However, the downside is that your negotiating power with sellers diminishes because buying plants in bulk usually allows for better rates.
S: So, how does the zero inventory model benefit the average gardener? Does it help them get products at a lower price? How is it beneficial to home gardeners and local people?
Mr. Shishir: From the customer’s perspective, there are two types of customers when it comes to gardening. One segment prefers offline purchases and likes to visit local nurseries physically. They only use online purchases when they cannot find a particular plant, flower, or seed in their local nursery. The second segment consists of tech-savvy customers who prefer buying online. They are more open to purchasing various types of plants online. People are realizing the benefits of this approach. In terms of price, buying from a local nursery is generally cheaper than buying online. We are competitive among other online players but not compared to physical nurseries due to high delivery and packaging costs and the overhead of running a professional platform.
PC: What is the gardening scenario like in India and Asian countries? How many people are involved in gardening, or how much awareness exists about having plants at home?
Mr. Shishir: In the Indian context, people generally love plants and want to keep them in their homes. However, when targeting urban consumers, we face the challenge that they lack plant knowledge and often don’t have the time to take care of them. This creates a significant issue. There is a huge scope for services in this regard, but unfortunately, we are not currently operating in that segment due to the required investment. However, there is tremendous potential.
Additionally, considering different regions in India, we see varying plant demands. In some locations, people purchase more from online nurseries, while in others, the demand is lower. For example, the demand for plants from online nurseries is relatively low in the country’s northern parts.
S: You also sell plants on your e-commerce website. What are the major and unique plants that you offer?
Mr. Shishir: Well, in my opinion, every website has developed its own customer niche over time. Some websites are known for specific categories of plants, and people visit those websites specifically for those products. Speaking about our website, we have a wide range of plants, over 2000 plus. However, the maximum business we receive is for succulents and flower bulbs. We also receive inquiries and orders for indoor plants; fruit plants have recently started gaining traction. But our biggest sellers are succulents and flower bulbs.
S: Okay, is it because succulents are easy to care for and flower bulbs require minimal care? Is that why they are in high demand or best-selling on your website?
Mr. Shishir: It’s difficult to say. Other websites would also deal in those products if that was the reason. Each website has its own specific customer niche. Succulents are indoor plants, and they can survive with minimal care. They are also easy to handle when it comes to watering. Regarding flower bulbs, they can be transported easily during transit, and there is less chance of damage. However, they still have their own set of challenges associated with them.
S: As a seller with more knowledge than the customers, what suggestions or tips would you give gardeners looking to buy plants? What should they consider, such as price, area, or any other factors?
Mr. Shishir: One challenge we have often faced with customers who buy plants from our website is the expectation that the plant received will be exactly like the image shown on the website regarding condition and quality. However, it’s not possible because when we send a plant, it takes several working days to reach the customer’s location, and it is delivered in a closed box with all precautions taken to keep it healthy. Despite that, there might be some wilting of leaves, and it may not look as healthy as the plant in the picture. But that doesn’t mean the plant is bad or dead. Customers should take the plant out of the box and keep it in an area with indirect sunlight for 48 hours. They should water it adequately and not immediately repot the plant. It’s essential to let the plant acclimatize to the local weather. After 48 hours, they can place the plant in their desired pot. In 90% of cases, they won’t face any issues. In cases where customers receive a dead plant, or the plant doesn’t revive, we take responsibility and provide a replacement or refund.
S: That’s great to hear. How do you ensure that gardeners receive their plants safely and undamaged? Do you use any special transportation units, freezing, or cooling methods?
Mr. Shishir: Over the course of two years, we have perfected the logistics aspect and invested significant time and effort in designing the packaging and safe delivery of plants. Different plants require different treatments during transit. For example, succulents are sent bare-rooted to avoid root rot during transit. We inform customers in advance that they will receive bare-rooted succulents, which may appear semi-finished or semi-dead. However, if they plant immediately in suitable soil and water adequately, they will return to life within a week.
Some plants, like water lilies, must be delivered within 24 to 48 hours. If that’s impossible, we must suggest alternative plants to the customer. Certain plants, especially indoor plants and fruit trees, are sturdier and can survive five to six days of transit. However, factors beyond our control, such as shipment delays or weather conditions, can affect the delivery. In such cases, customer satisfaction is paramount. If there are any complaints, we immediately offer refunds or replacements as necessary.
S: So, logistics is a major challenge?
Mr. Shishir: Yes, logistics is a significant cost factor and plays a crucial role in the overall cost of the product.
S: Do you receive orders from customers in mountainous regions who want plants that typically grow in the plains?
Mr. Shishir: We often receive such requests from customers, but if we believe a plant won’t survive in a specific location, we inform the customer upfront and suggest alternative plants. Certain plant varieties can only thrive in the hills or the plains, and we educate the customers about these limitations. For example, apple trees were traditionally associated with the hills. Still, recent research has led to the development of apple varieties that can be grown in plains like Lucknow, Delhi, or Kolkata. In such cases, we recommend those specific varieties to the customers. It’s a dynamic process; we must keep customers informed and engaged throughout.
S: So, at Urban Plant, when customers visit your website, you also have a customer care service where they can submit their queries?
Mr. Shishir: Yes, customers can engage with us through WhatsApp and speak to us directly using the provided phone number. Additionally, when a customer places an order, if we feel the need to educate them about the plant, we must inform them. So, we call them and provide the necessary information.
S: Great. So, when you sell plants, especially bulbs, do you start the plant-growing process or source them from outside?
Mr. Shishir: We work with partner nurseries and don’t have a nursery. We collaborate closely with our sellers and create a list of plants that can be promoted over the next three to four months. Additionally, when supplying plants to customers, we ensure that the height of the plant is between one to one and a half feet, not exceeding two feet. For fruit plants, they can grow up to a height of 10 to 11 feet, but we inform customers that we can only supply plants of a certain size. We plan with our suppliers for specific plant varieties, considering the size and age of the plant, which also affects the pricing. We strive to balance plant size, and the price customers are willing to pay.
S: That makes sense. Since you’re selling plants and plant-related products, how challenging or easy is it to keep up with new varieties and trends in planting?
Mr. Shishir: It’s not very difficult because our sellers keep us informed. We also interact with customers, including our loyal and returning customers, who often inform us about specific varieties they are interested in. Our website has over 20% returning customers, which is a good indicator. We stay connected with the market through social media and actively monitor new varieties and products entering the market. Our goal is always to offer the best to our customers.
S: Thank you so much! It was an absolute honor to have you on board and discuss gardening and the unique relationship between plants and e-commerce. Personally, I learned a lot about the business aspects, which we don’t often focus on in Plant Craze. On my team’s behalf, I sincerely thank you, Mr. Shishir, for your time and valuable insights.
Mr. Sishir: Thank you, ma’am. It was a pleasure interacting with you, and I look forward to more such interactions in the future.
S: Yes, indeed. Thank you again. The interview is now concluded.
As our discussion ended, it was evident that the gardening world is undergoing a transformation fueled by the power of technology and e-commerce. Mr. Sisir’s vision for Urban Plants as a One-Stop solution for all gardening needs, including virtual gardens, community interaction, and personalized gardening services, showcases the potential of this evolving industry.
With a focus on customer satisfaction, innovation, and environmental sustainability, Urban Plants and similar ventures are paving the way for a greener future. This interview provided a valuable glimpse into the dynamic world of gardening and the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.