Ordering plants by mail order is a risky business

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Shopping by mail order is meant to make our lives easier, but the reality is often a little different – especially, it seems, if you’re a gardener.

In fact, according to a recent survey carried out by Which? Gardening, the Consumers’ Association magazine, 38 per cent of customers have experienced at least one problem with mail order plants.

The association first investigated customers’ experiences of buying plants through mail order back in the summer of 2012. While around eight in 10 said they were happy, 36 per cent said they had experienced problems, the most common of which were the quality of plants or bulbs provided, packages being left on the doorstep while customers were away and damaged packaging.

Others received dead or dying plants, specimens that were too small or which quickly succumbed to disease and some which were rotten on arrival.

In response to this, the Consumers’ Association came up with The Which? Gardening Best Practice Criteria, a 10-point plan retailers should adopt to ensure a better experience for gardeners, with points such as giving an accurate description of the plant (including its size), flagging up any particular growing requirements, adopting strict quality control measures before the plants are sent out and ensuring packaging is secure enough to completely protect the plant in transit.

So, did the measures work?

To find out, Which? carried out a follow-up survey of more than 2,500 people in September 2013, and the 2,597 members who’d bought plants by mail order in the previous year recalled their latest experiences.

There were mixed results. Top-scoring suppliers included Blackmoor, Bloms Bulbs, David Austin Roses, Crocus and The RHS Plant Shop, while at the bottom were Bakker, Spalding Bulbs and Garden Bargains.

So clearly some companies have improved their service, but others haven’t. Either way though, whoever you choose to order your plants with, you need to know your rights.

If you receive a plant you think is dead, the Sale of Goods Act 1979 says you are entitled to a refund, as long as you have notified the retailer of the problem within ‘a reasonable time’. What is ‘reasonable’ depends on the circumstances, but is typically three to four weeks, or less, from when the goods are received.

Contact the seller as soon as you know there’s a problem.

If a plant you receive is diseased, you can ask for your money back, again within a reasonable time, or a replacement. In the first six months, the onus is on the seller to prove the plants weren’t supplied diseased rather than you having to prove that they were.

It makes no difference if the plants were damaged before they were sent or in transit, it’s the seller’s responsibility, so you can ask for your money back, within that reasonable time, or a replacement. Don’t let the seller put the onus on you to take it up with the courier they used.

If you’ve had a problem with a plant you ordered and have asked for a refund immediately, but the seller has offered you a credit against future purchases instead, don’t accept this offer if you don’t want to. Where the contract is breached, you are entitled to a refund or, if you prefer, a replacement. The seller cannot decide you will only get a credit note. Any part of their terms and conditions that might suggest they can, would be unenforceable and could be challenged as unfair.

n The full report is in the January/February issue of Which? Gardening. Sign up to Which? for a one month trial for £1 and get access to all its product reviews, test scores and Best Buy or Don’t Buy ratings. Visit www.which.co.uk/signup for more information.