My order of violas arrived today. They were dispatched yesterday, so I knew to expect them today or tomorrow, and was pleased that they came fairly early this morning, partly because it meant I no longer had to wait around for the van, and because it meant they hadn't spent too long in transit. And the weather hasn't been too hot in the past couple of days, and the delivery company had kept the box the right way up and not squashed it. So far, so good.
I ordered the plants on 6 March. The suppliers, an earnest young couple who met at Wisley and featured on last year's Chelsea TV coverage, had bought out an established viola grower. They did a beautiful stand at Chelsea, and their website looked pretty good, with full online ordering and payment, nice photos, and as far as I recall a detail I hadn't seen before, which was that items you'd added to your basket were flagged on the main catalogue pages, so that as you browsed through you could see what you'd already chosen without having to go to the shopping basket. I was impressed.
A month went by. The website said they only dispatched plants between late March and late June, so I wasn't too bothered by the delay. Once it got to the first week of April I checked on their website to see what it said about sending orders out, and was rather puzzled to find my basket still live on the screen four weeks after I'd ordered, or at any rate paid, only by now several items in it were marked as out of stock. Puzzled, I emailed to check that the order was in hand and ask when they might be sending the plants, adding that I hadn't liked to hassle them as I knew they were only a small outfit. Their reply could be interpreted as sounding either harassed or ratty, depending on whether you were feeling charitable or entitled. They were sending orders out as fast as they could and as a rough guide orders received after Christmas would be sent out in April or May, in the order in which they were placed. I was left none the wiser as to why my basket still contained items, or how much of what I'd ordered was by now out of stock, and decided to leave it and see what turned up.
On Sunday lunchtime somebody rang to say that my order would be dispatched tomorrow. I expressed my pleasure. Some of the items were out of stock and they would have to substitute with something similar, was that all right? Her tones suggested that I was supposed to say that of course it was all right, much as I might if a friend trying to book concert tickets couldn't get us in to the event we most wanted to see and was proposing we go to something else instead. I said that I would take the substitutes given that all the violas had been pretty and I preferred to spread the cost of delivery over a reasonable number of plants, though obviously I'd have preferred to have the varieties I'd chosen and not something different. She began to explain how some of the stock plants hadn't come back as strongly as hoped and so they hadn't been able to take as many cuttings as anticipated, and how difficult it was knowing how many plants to produce. I thanked her for her call and returned to cooking the lunch.
I'd ordered ten plants, all different, since I thought I'd try my own hand at cuttings to bulk up those Viola cornuta varieties I planned to use in the borders. The box, when unpacked, contained ten pots, all nice healthy plants, well grown, bushy, green, mildly squashed from being backed in two layers on their sides but with no structural damage. Stood in the fresh air out of hot sun for a day I was sure they'd be fine. Five of the ten were not what I'd ordered. I was mildly disappointed. A couple of substitutions, fair enough, but half the entire order? Maybe they should only put plants up on their website once they had cuttings rooted in and growing on. As it was they almost might as well offer five violas of our choosing, all different. Or if they were going to amend orders to that extent perhaps it would be graceful to slip in an extra free plant, by way of apology.
I settled down with my laptop and a cup of tea to find out what the substitute varieties looked like, and found that most of them didn't seem to be on the viola firm's website. I think they must have taken down varieties they weren't going to have again this season, as I couldn't find all my originally ordered plants there either. That would save potential customers the disappointment of preferring varieties they couldn't have, but sent me surfing the net in search of photos and descriptions, which quickly led me to a Scottish nursery offering a pretty wide range of violas, even if they didn't show at Chelsea. I bookmarked the site for future reference.
So was it a good retail experience? Well, yes and no. They look good healthy plants, and the substitutes all sound close enough that I'll probably like them. But half of them weren't what I ordered, I had to pay for them six weeks ago, and I didn't feel I'd been especially well kept informed in the meantime. Would I use them again? Yes if they had varieties I wanted, though I'd order in autumn for spring delivery with a firm note that I did not want substitutes. Do I feel any sense of customer loyalty? None whatsoever.