By GREGORY ZELLER //
How old school is East Norwich-based Martin Viette Nurseries?
Consider: Russ Ireland is the third Russ Ireland to run the family business.
Ireland – actually Russ Ireland III, co-owner with his brother, Michael – traces the family-owned enterprise to Oceanside’s Ireland’s Nursery and Landscaping, which Russ Ireland Sr. opened in the mid-1950s. Russ Ireland Jr. bought out the founder in 1964, and later purchased Martin Viette Nurseries while launching Ireland Gannon Landscaping.
Both of those latter companies still operate today. But the third generation of Irelands to run the family business has given it a decidedly 21st century spin through Landscaper Outlet, an e-commerce platform that’s opened the local shop to a world of new opportunity.
It took Ireland years to convince his brother to go the e-commerce route, even though “thinking out of the box is something we’ve always done.”
“We always got the newest cash registers,” Ireland told Innovate LI. “We started doing point-of-sale, all of that. But we’ve never done anything like this.”
Landscaper Outlet provides a vast selection of planters, fountains, statues, birdbaths, barbecues and “everything else you’d need for your outdoor living space,” Ireland said.
While there is some crossover with the brick-and-mortar store’s floor selection, it’s a much larger inventory than Martin Viette Nurseries could keep on hand in East Norwich, all available for direct shipping from manufacturer to customer, with Landscaper Outlet serving as an e-middleman.
“It’s enabled us to still bring in a decent amount of product to the store, but we don’t have to bring in the tremendous fountains or large amounts of furniture or anything like that,” Ireland said. “We can just show it on the website and sell it directly from there.
“We’re able to have a lot more diversity,” he added. “And if a customer calls up looking for something we don’t have, we can go order it. This has really been a godsend.”
The increased diversity was also a bit of a moral challenge, at least at first. While they were eager to expand into new products and markets, the Irelands didn’t want to step on any toes.
“The horticulture and garden-center industry is, for the most part, very tight,” Ireland noted. “We’ve all grown up together. My brother and I were very concerned that people would think we were trying to take business away from them.”
And not just in New York: Since launching the e-commerce platform, the Irelands have scored customers in California, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts and other states where longtime friends and industry contacts are already established. The growth of their interstate customer base has reinforced their decision to launch a completely new entity, instead of simply beefing up the Martin Viette Nurseries’ website.
“We didn’t want to start any kind of bad feelings,” Ireland said. “We didn’t want anyone thinking ‘Martin Viette is hurting our business.’ That’s why we gave it a different name.”
Of course, in a tightknit industry where dealers in one state might actually be offended by the actions of dealers in another state, such secrets can’t keep for long. Landscaper Outlet grew nicely for a few years with its secret identity intact, but the cat is out of the bag now – and those longtime industry associates are just fine with it, according to Ireland.
In fact, those non-offended industry counterparts are part of the Irelands’ ambitious growth plans. The brothers are kicking around several ideas, including using some industry contacts – a Massachusetts-based garden-furniture dealer, for instance – as resellers for Landscaper Outlet’s massive inventory.
“We can make them affiliates and actually give them a percentage of the sales,” Ireland said. “We haven’t come up with the whole criteria yet, but that’s one idea we’re looking to incorporate.”
Other ideas: A similar network featuring local landscaping experts that know what to do with a 1,000-pound stone waterfall – “We keep running into people who buy these beautiful fountains and don’t know anybody who can install them,” Ireland noted – and product expansions featuring outdoor art and other backyard accouterments not yet included on the Landscaper Outlet menu.
“This helps us, helps the [affiliate sellers] and benefits the landscapes by getting them onto peoples’ property and possibly making an up-sale,” he said. “There are some really cool opportunities, and we’re working on them now.
“We’ll continue refining the process and finding new partnerships.”
While sow-now, reap-later basically describes the landscaping and gardening world as a whole, the creation of an interstate sales-and-service e-hub is fairly forward-thinking stuff, especially for a local business whose previous claim to fame was creating flower displays for the annual Easter show at Macy’s flagship Herald Square department store (28 years running, Ireland noted).
But all the e-commerce bells and whistles in the world won’t matter, according to Ireland, if the personal service that’s marked Ireland-owned nurseries and landscaping businesses for half-a-century is eroded.
“The really nice thing is people can call us and we’ll work with them, and we can guide them when they have different questions,” Ireland said. “Our goal was to give retail service through an e-commerce site, so when you call, you’re not talking to a machine, you’re talking to a person.”
The co-owner estimated that 70 percent of his company’s sales still involve a living, breathing person, with the remainder conducted through Landscaper Outlet’s automated systems.
“Everybody has Miracle Grow,” he said. “Not everybody has someone in their shop or online who’s looking to help.
“My (online) salespeople work the retail floor, so they understand the services and products,” Ireland added. “They’re not just sitting upstairs looking at a catalogue. They’ve gone out and installed fountains and planters, and I like that when someone calls up, they get a connection like that.”
What’s It? E-commerce spinoff of 60-year-old family landscaping business, featuring backyard furniture, fountains, grills and other outdoor accouterments
Brought To You By: The Ireland brothers, of Martin Viette Nurseries and Ireland Gannon Landscaping fame
All In: $60,000, self-invested by the family, for payroll increases and website development
Status: Their secret is out