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Co-op primer: Tips For Organizers

1. Introduction

2. Tips For Organizers

3. Tips For Participants

4. What To Do When Things Go Wrong

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Tips for Organizers:

How far in advance should you plan a Co-op? That depends on a lot of variables, but Co-ops generally require 8-10 weeks to complete:

  1. (2 weeks) Organizer decides on item(s) to offer, locates a source and announces the Co-op

  2. (2 weeks) Members have a chance to review the choices and place their requests

  3. (1 week) Organizer totals the orders and works out any last-minute changes

  4. (1-2 weeks) Organizer receives all payments and places the order

  5. (2 weeks) Company processes and ships the order to the organizer

  6. (2-3 days) Organizer inventories, sorts and repackages the order

  7. (2-5 days) Participants receive their orders

There are numerous tasks involved in each step of a Co-op, and some Co-ops will take more time in one or more of those steps. If you're thinking about organizing a Co-op, it's important to understand the work you must do to have the orders arrive at the proper planting time. Plants should be ordered and set out at specific times of the year; here are some general guidelines:

WinterSeed orders (November-February)
Early SpringSummer-flowering bulbs, most bare-root perennials and roses
Mid-late SpringFall-flowering bulbs, warm season annuals, tropicals, and container-grown perennials
Late Summer/FallSpring-flowering bulbs, berry plants, trees, shrubs and other woody ornamentals (~ 6-8 weeks before freezing weather arrives)

Hint: If you're new to organizing a Co-op, try starting with a simple, small Co-op, and ask for help from more experienced organizers.

Step 1: Getting Started

The most successful Co-op is organized by someone who has a keen interest in buying a particular type of plant or item for themselves. Once you know what you want, determine where you'll buy from and how much it will cost. Then contact us. In your email, let us know the details of your co-op and, if we approve it, we will post a new thread for you in the Co-op forum.

Know the item(s). Make sure you know all you can about what you're ordering for everyone, and that you understand how to pack and send each item according to its individual needs

Find a source. Assuming you've already decided on what you'd like to try to purchase, one of the first steps is to find a source. You can ask friends, post a question on the forums, check our own Garden Watchdog, use a search engine such as Google, and check with local businesses. A favorite garden center in your area or local wholesaler might give you a discount for buying in quantity.

You can start a new thread to ask if anyone has a favorite company for a particular type of plant. For example, if you want to do a Co-op for daylilies, you can post your question on the daylily forum.

Before deciding on a source, do as much research about them as you can. Ask for references on the forums. The Garden Watchdog contains references from gardeners for many companies. You can find a company by searching for a particular plant, or by the company name.

Learn as much as you can about the plants or products you're interested in ordering. Look for companies with good references and then call or visit to ask about their products, prices, and policies. Make sure the employees are knowledgeable and helpful, and that you understand the information they give you. Working with a reputable company increases your chances for a successful Co-op.

Negotiate. Call, e-mail, or visit the company to check their quantity discounts or wholesale prices. Some companies require a tax I.D. number, or will sell only to a business in the trade, so be sure to confirm their policy about wholesale orders before launching a Co-op. It doesn't hurt to ask if there are price breaks for larger purchases - at worst, they decline; at best, you get a better deal for the Co-op participants.

When contacting a mail-order company, ask how they calculate shipping fees so you can provide an estimate for each participant. Here are some other questions to ask:

  • How big (or how old) are the plants?

  • Will plants be shipped potted or bare-root? (If bare-root, can they survive two consecutive shipments - first to you, then to each participant? Some plants cannot survive having their roots disturbed for that long. Make sure you know enough about the plant you're proposing to buy so you can handle them responsibly.)

  • What shipping method will they use and how long will delivery take?

  • What is their procedure is for lost shipments or for receiving damaged plants? You must decide if it's a policy you agree with (see When Things Go Wrong). Don't confuse a guarantee with procedures for fixing a problem. Anyone can say they have a good guarantee, but make sure you understand how to use it if necessary.

Announce your intentions. As you're looking for a source for the item(s) you want to buy, keep in mind that others aren't likely to participate in a Co-op for things that can readily be found cheaper through other sources or locally. The incentive must either be cost or rarity of the items, and often the volume of the purchase creates a discount that offsets the additional costs of breaking down and repackaging the individual orders.

Once you've determined there's enough interest and settled on a vendor, fill out a Co-op request form. Once we get your application, we will review it and hopefully approve it to be started. Co-ops should provide enough time for people to have the chance to find out about the opportunity and post their orders but not so long that the growing season is over or the items are no longer available. One very important consideration is availability. If an item is popular it may sell out early; be sure to factor this in. Clearly state your deadline for participants to post their requests.

State any limitations, such as whether or not non-subscribers can participate as well as the specific varieties and sizes you're willing to handle. The company you order from may have a smorgasbord of choices available, but don't feel pressured to allow everyone to select their personal favorites. Be as flexible as you can, but stand firm if you prefer to keep varieties to a minimum.

When the Co-op deadline has passed, remember to edit your initial post (at the beginning of the thread) to clearly announce the Co-op is closed.

Be very clear about methods of payment you will accept - generally checks/money orders and perhaps PayPal. If you accept PayPal, indicate whether you can accept credit card payments or funds only. If you can accept credit cards, it is reasonable to require the participant to pay the applicable fees.

Most organizers prefer to collect all funds before placing the order. However, if timing and availability are an issue, you may consider fronting the payment. There is no guarantee you will collect all the funds, so don't pay in advance if that possibility would create a financial hardship for you.

Step 2: Keep Up With the Orders and Questions

As the Co-op progresses, be ready for questions. Respond to all questions posted to the site within a day whenever possible. Participants will also add to and change their order, so check the thread often and regularly. If you are maintaining a list of orders at the top of your thread, update it frequently (daily if necessary) so participants know you're staying organized and paying attention to them. Make sure any minimum quantities are met, and any adjustments or expected substitutions are clear.

Step 3: Organize the Order

Organizing the order consists of totaling everyone's orders and working out any last-minute changes. Call the company to confirm everything is still available at the price you negotiated, and send everyone their totals.

Verify orders: Before closing the Co-op to new orders, verify everyone's order. Re-read the posts and summarize what you have counted for everyone. Then ask everyone to confirm their orders to make sure they're correct. Request ZIP codes from each participant so you can estimate postage costs. When the Co-op is closed, edit the first post to indicate the Co-op is closed and orders are no longer being accepted.

As soon as the deadline for requests has passed, use the orders posted by each participant to combine everyone's requests into one order. When placing the order, you'll need to summarize and sort the order by plant or item. Total each item, and have your total(s) ready when you place the order.

This is a good time to make sure you have everything you need to send the orders. See Packing/Mailing Supplies below.

Hint: A computer spreadsheet or table will help you organize your purchase and the individual orders. You enter the information once, and can then sort it for a cross-reference. For example, you can make a list of all orders by person, and you can sort that list in alphabetical order by person. Then you can sort the same list by plant or item name. Spreadsheets give you the ability to calculate totals and postage, separate the different shipping amounts for each participant, keep track of which orders are paid and which payments are pending, and any special instructions you might have agreed to, such as a delayed shipping date for weather or vacation, etc.

Confirm availability & prices. Contact the company and make sure everything is available at the agreed price, and request an estimate on shipping/handling costs. If you're not placing the order immediately, ask if the items are expected to be in stock when you place your order. Companies may not be able to guarantee availability, but they can give you their best guess based on their normal selling patterns and current inventory.

If necessary, discuss substitutions, adjustments, and be clear about handling out-of-stock items.

Postage and totals. Each participant's purchase consists of (up to) 4 parts:

  1. Cost of plants
  2. Shipping/handling from supplier to you
  3. Packing materials and supplies
  4. Postage from you to participant
1. The cost of the plants (that's the easy part!) Remember there may be sales tax if you're buying from a local source.

2. If you're buying through mail-order, there will be shipping/handling (S/H) charges from the company to you. The S/H can be handled a couple of different ways. If the company bases it on the dollar amount of the order, then you can pro-rate it based on each participant's order. Let's say a Co-op order for three participants totals $400 and postage from the supplier is 10% ($40):

Participant A - $290 = $29 shipping (10% of $290)

Participant B - $100 = $10 shipping (10% of $100)

Participant C - $10 = $1 shipping (10% of $10)

If the shipping is based on weight, then the fairest solution is to pro-rate by estimated weight of the items each participant purchased. If all the items weigh approximately the same, you can base it on number of items ordered. Using the same example as above, let's say the three participants ordered 100 items total, and the shipping is still $40:

Participant A - 73 items = $29.20 ($.40 x 73 items)

Participant B - 25 items = $10 ($.40 x 25)

Participant C - 2 items = $.80 ($.40 x 2)

Don't worry about carrying your calculations out to the thousandth decimal point! If you make an honest effort to fairly apply the shipping, the participants should accept a little rounding up or down.

3. Packaging materials may or may not be an expense - if at all possible, use free supplies (recycled packing peanuts, shredded newspapers and USPS boxes and tape.)

4. Postage to the participant. Depending on what you are sending this may be easy to calculate or more difficult. You will need the approximate weight of each order and the ZIP code for each participant. If including package tracking, be sure to include the appropriate amount in the total.

For current postage rates, refer to the US Postal Service (USPS) and United Parcel Service (UPS) websites. Generally, packages under 15 pounds can be sent USPS or UPS; packages exceeding 15 pounds can be sent UPS.

It is possible to miscalculate postage. If you overestimate the shipping expense, refund the extra money to the participant. If the estimate is too low, contact the participant to let them know how much they owe you. The organizer and participant may agree to waive a small difference in postage, especially if it's less than the cost to mail the check.

Contact the participants. Once you have determined the cost, contact each participant and include the following information:

  • Their order details - list of plant(s) and quantities ordered
  • Cost (plant + shipping/handling + packing materials + postage)
  • Your address (if you want checks or money orders mailed directly to you)
  • PayPal instructions (if you accept PayPal)
  • Request for their real name and mailing address

When you're sending this note, remind each participant to include their real name and DG nickname on all emails and payments.

Track payments. This is where organization is crucial: document the person's name, total due and whether payment has been received. Many organizers use the Co-op thread to list the names of all of the participants who have ordered plants and indicate when payment has been received from each participant. This reduces the number of emails and questions of people wanting to know whether you have received their payment.

Step 4: Place and Prepare for the Order

When contacting the company verify all information (prices, availability, shipping method, shipping date, approximate delivery date.) If necessary, discuss substitutions, adjustments, and make your position clear on how you want to handle an item that's out of stock.Find out when the order will be shipped and how long delivery will take so you can make arrangements to receive the order as soon as it's delivered. Bring the box(es) indoors immediately so perishable items aren't left outside and exposed to excessive heat, cold, moisture, or theft.

Packing/mailing supplies. Between finalizing your Co-op and placing your order, make sure you have enough packing and mailing supplies for sending orders to all your participants. The shipping method you use will depend on what you're sending, so make sure you know the best way to pack and ship various plants or breakable items. Here are some supplies you might need, depending on what you're sending:

  • Paper towels
  • Water (water bottle, basin of water, etc. for dampening materials)
  • Plastic wrap or plastic bags
  • Lunch bags or newspaper (for wrapping foliage in a florist-style cone)
  • Rubber bands/string/twist-ties
  • Box fillers
  • Shredded paper, Styrofoam peanuts, tissue, etc.
  • Permanent, waterproof marker
  • Plain white labels
  • Tape*
  • Boxes*
  • Address labels or delivery confirmation labels*

* These items are all free if you use USPS Priority Mail service, and can be ordered online or picked up at larger US Post Offices. You can use the USPS on-line service to print delivery confirmation labels. If you order boxes or tape, keep in mind it can take 2 weeks to receive mailing supplies.

UPS will allow you to fill out their shipping forms in advance; the forms are available at all UPS shipping counters.

Print each individual order in advance and use them to help you track who has paid for their order, and fill orders as payments are received. You may need to fill orders based on where participants live. Early in the year, plants, seeds or bulbs should go to those in the warmest climates first; for late spring/fall orders, the reverse is true.

Print out a master list with every participant's name so you can note when their order is packed and shipped and if any item was "out of stock" so you can contact them about the overpayment.

Step 5 - Process the order

Upon delivery, open the order immediately and make sure it's complete, undamaged, and healthy. It is important to inventory your order when you receive it: make sure the vendor sent you the exact amounts you ordered, and they're in good shape. Compare the total received with your records. If there is any discrepancy, or if there is damage, etc., contact the company to resolve any problems. Follow the company's instructions for credit or replacement, and post any updated information to your Co-op thread. If there was an error in calculating the order, an additional order may need to be placed.

As you finish your inventory, spread out the plants to give them some air after their long trip, and water them if necessary. Group them according to their variety, and label each group. It will make the packaging process go smoothly and quickly if you don't have to hunt around for different varieties.

When packing orders, pack each plant or item according to its individual needs with the supplies you've prepared while waiting for delivery.

If a plant order can't be sent immediately because of an arrangement between you and the participant, you'll have to keep them healthy until they're shipped. This could mean potting them, watering them, and keeping them safe from the weather or critters.

Pack orders. As you pack each order, have the printout of the participant's order, and make a small tick mark next to each item. Double-check the quantities too! If a mistake was made or an item is out of stock, contact the participant. They may want more of another variety (if available), or they may have you apply the extra money toward their postage costs. Regardless, make sure you and the participant agree on how to handle changes to their original request.

For large Co-op purchases, or when many different varieties are involved, enlist the help of a family member, or even a nearby DG member. Not only will the packing go more quickly, but you can check each other's work as you go.

Step 6 - Wrapping it up

When the orders are delivered to the post office or UPS store, post an update to your thread in the Co-op forum. If you're sending the boxes out in batches, post a daily update with a list of whose boxes went out.

Ideally, participants will let you know when they receive their orders. If not, you can check with them through the Co-op thread, through e-mail, and you can check the status of your confirmation numbers. Don't use only delivery confirmation because while the package might have been delivered, the participant might not be aware he or she has it. It's important to have some type of communication directly with each participant.

When the Co-op is completely done, you may wish to have your thread title edited to indicate the Co-op is concluded. You can email the helpdesk if you want to have this done.

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