Group buys can offer great savings on items that are otherwise hard to find or hard to afford. When you find yourself chatting with your DG friends about how you'd all love the latest in crepe myrtles or the best in gloves, if only they weren't so darned expensive, it's time to think about hosting a group buy. Although we need to limit discussion of group buys in the regular forums (to avoid the appearance of commercialism or self-promotion), we have a Group Buy Forum where we can organize such purchases.

How much time will it take? I find the big time commitments are the first and last weeks of a group buy, during setup and delivery. The first week involves setting up the spreadsheet, posting all the information needed by the participants, answering questions, and deciding what will be included in the buy. Delivery time means checking the order with the supplier, dividing bulk quantities, and assembling individual orders for either pickup or delivery to participants. Both of those busy weeks include a lot of tasks that can be delegated, but the overall organization will be up to you, the host. The more you think things through before you start, the fewer snags you'll encounter.

TEST THE WATERS

Before you organize a large purchase, do a small group buy for something non-perishable. Garden gloves, seed baggies, polymer moisture crystals, labels, potting supplies... all are cheaper in bulk, and you'll learn the ropes without getting in over your head.

When possible, place a personal order with a vendor before entrusting them with a group purchase. That way, you're familiar with both the product and the supplier before asking people to "go in" with you. At the very least, check them out on Garden Watchdog.

Before you post any invitations, think through all the parts of a group buy, and write down the details. Your group buy needs structure: limits on size and scope, timelines for ordering and delivery, payment methods and deadlines, vendors and website links, and did I mention limits? First timers, especially – post twice as many details as seem "necessary" to you, and make those limits half of what you think you can handle.

SET LIMITS

LIMIT # participants. Either directly cap the number of participants by saying "no more than N," or find another method. I've limited various bulb buys by saying "I will not ship." Most of my "pass along the savings" bulk buys were in conjunction with our plant and seed swaps.

LIMIT items involved. If you said "lilies," don't add trays of perennials. If you said "daffodils," don't add 28 kinds of tulips. It's OK to be a little flexible, especially on things you'd like yourself, but don't get carried away. Ask a friend to be your "Voice of Reason," so you won't be overwhelmed at delivery time.

LIMIT $. The less deep your pockets, the more tempting it is to set up a group buy for something you want. Shared savings mean shared risk in a group buy, something to state very clearly in your guidelines. Still, if something goes wrong, there will be bad feelings and people not wanting to pay. If the worst case scenario – losing the total purchase cost of a group buy – would leave you scrambling to make ends meet, then consider helping rather than hosting.

Also, consider capping the amount for any one person's order, especially when you could have participants you don't "know." And, by the way, it's perfectly OK to have a double standard for old friends and newcomers – this is your wallet on the line. You're not being unfriendly by protecting yourself!

COMMUNICATE

State all these guidelines clearly at the top of your group buy threads. Update threads regularly with order status information – quantities remaining, items dropped or added, arrival of items, shipping or pickup times, payment deadlines. I use bold type on important posts, so updates don't get lost in chatter. Use Dmail for invoices, but try to limit Dmail "blasts" to the first and final announcements of the group buy opportunity, unless you have a really vital update.

Be prepared for people to ask you to make exceptions to the rules you set up. One exception can lead to dozens of concessions, and lots of extra work, so be firm. LIMIT the insanity!

DELEGATE!

When people say, "let me know what I can do to help!" take them up on it! I like to reserve a post near the top of a group buy thread for "other details," including jobs that need doing and the people who have offered to help with them. For nearly every group buy, get help with the sorting & packing!

Have a back-up plan! Life happens. In the early stages, it's often simpler to cancel a group buy altogether - there will be other opportunities. After payments have been made, things have the potential to get messier. Like Miss America, you need a runner-up, "should you for any reason become unable to fulfill your duties. Especially with a larger or more complicated group buy, it's reassuring for everybody to know there's a deputy host.

Can you have too much help? Yes. Well, not really, but if your helpers' jobs and roles aren't clearly defined, you can end up with tangles that are the opposite of help. For sure, there should be only one person collecting money and dealing with the vendor(s). The buck stops with you, the host, so the bucks should be in your hands. Delegate, but don't abdicate your role as leader.

ISN'T THIS A LOT OF WORK?

Yes, yes it is. But there's a lot of fun and satisfaction in hosting group buys, also. I enjoy the anticipation and chit-chat that happens as we put an order together. We're all such a group of "enablers" when it comes to our gardening passion; it feels good to take my turn. If the idea of running a group buy seems overwhelming, be a co-host or just offer to help. Or get a feel for things by simply participating in several group buys before deciding what you want to tackle yourself.

Whether you're hosting, helping, or just participating – in a well-run group buy, everybody wins!