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We celebrate 20 years on the webTwenty years ago a small Cornish nursery was approached by a fledgling computer company with some very big ideas.
Before PayPal and Ebay – even before the official birth of Google – Burncoose Nurseries and Forgecom were thinking of ways to make the best use of the world wide web.
In 1997 Burncoose was one of the last remaining traditional mail order plant businesses in the country and it was struggling to compete with the larger garden centres.
A team was on the road for months every year visiting garden shows up and down the country, creating exhibits and trying to encourage people to buy plants from the catalogue by mail order.
Sending lorries all over the country was expensive and unprofitable. Plus, it removed labour from the nursery at key times of the year when growing plants needed the most care and attention.
Creating a website rather than taking orders at shows, on the telephone or by post was still virtually unheard of.
But in 1997 - well ahead of the competition - Burncoose, the garden centre at the heart of the beautiful Caerhays Estate near St Austell, decided to take the plunge.
Newton Abbot-based Forgecom made initial contact with Caerhays Estate owner Charles Williams, who admitted at the time he had no idea how important the internet would prove to be.
He said: “It seemed truly ground-breaking at the time and we weren’t sure if it would work, or whether our customers would use it.
“But we have always tried to be innovative and over the years we have come to rely more and more on our online business.
“It allows us to concentrate on developing a vast array of new and interesting plants and having such a great online presence has allowed us to deal with growers at all levels.
“It also makes it easier for our customers who must feel the same way we do – how on earth did we ever manage before the internet?”
One of the problems the award winning Cornish nursery originally faced was photographing all of the 4,000 different ornamental shrubs and trees, herbaceous plants and other varieties they sell.
It took more than ten years to take four separate photographs of every plant - in leaf, in flower, with seeds and autumn colour, in the nursery and growing in the garden.
And the website has changed many times over the years to include more ranges, better photos, faster ordering and to make it easier to purchase plants on a mobile phone.
Forgecom’s Julie Hosegrove said: “Burncoose has wanted to keep as up to date and user friendly as possible, never shying away from new ideas.
“I’m so glad we approached Charles way back in 1997. Then there was no ‘off-the-shelf’ shopping baskets and even Ebay wasn’t to reach the UK for another two years.
“We were delighted when Charles said he was interested in having a chat. He even said he was surprised someone would bother to visit him way down in Cornwall with such a futuristic sounding idea.
“Twenty years later - and several significant changes to the look and functionality of the website - our partnership is still going strong. The website is like a garden, ever changing and evolving, it is never finished.”
The Burncoose site extends today to some 4500 pages and the company can easily process and despatch 2,000 orders a month in the busy spring season, despatching nearly 100,000 plants this year to keen gardeners in the UK and across Europe.