Indian Creek Nature Center Pivots to Virtual Plant Sale

by Liz Zabel, Marketing Manager
Indian Creek Nature Center — Cedar Rapids, IA


Indian Creek Nature Center Plant Sale (Photo by Liz Zabel)

 all photos by Liz Zabel


WHEN FACED WITH the decision to close to the public in March due to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, Indian Creek Nature Center officials knew that also meant canceling or postponing much of the Nature Center’s programming and events — including the biggest fundraiser of the year, the 37th annual Maple Syrup Festival set for March 21 & 22.

Another huge fundraiser, the Spring Plant & Art Sale, was not far behind. Scheduled for May 2, it was clear a decision had to be made soon. Postponing this event was not an option due to the timeliness of the event — the concept of the annual Plant & Art Sale is to provide a shopping event right in time for spring gardening. Delaying would miss a crucial planting window. To cancel wasn’t an ideal option either — plants had already been ordered, and having to cancel another large fundraiser would have been another big blow to the Nature Center.

So, that left one option: pivot.

Along with the leadership team, ICNC’s Event Coordinator Sarah Botkin and the Friends of Indian Creek Nature Center (the volunteer group who host the Plant & Art Sale as well as ICNC’s holiday market, Nature’s Noel every year) decided to move the sale online. This would be the first online sale of any kind for Indian Creek Nature Center, and it wouldn’t be without its challenges, especially considering ICNC’s staff is social distancing and working from home.

Here’s how we managed it.

Step one: Planning, inventory and moving online.

Indian Creek Nature Center (Photo by Liz Zabel)First we had to determine what we could make available online. What inventory did we know we have and which vendors were still able to participate?

We collected information from vendors using Google Forms (plant name, size, photo if available and description). Many items did not have photos or descriptions, which meant staff members had to gather this information for hundreds of plants. We had a team of five staff working on gathering this information and getting it onto our online shopping platform for 10 days.

Our platform had a few limitations, so we used our website to create a landing page to explain the event, how to access the sale and how to navigate the sale page.

Step two: Marketing.

First we communicated through our regular channels (email newsletter, social media, website, press release, etc) that we were moving the Plant & Art Sale online.

A Facebook event was created to help promote the event (boosted with a limited advertising budget — we spent less than $100), and more than 1,000 people marked themselves as “interested,” giving us a direct line of communication with potential shoppers by posting in the event.

Coverage in the local paper also helped promote the event.

Step three: Trial and error.

Before going live with the sale, it was critical that we test the shopping experience. This way we were able to catch a few errors before going live with the sale and prepare the best we could.

Anticipating a potential wave of heavy traffic to our website, we also warned the hosting site that we needed to be prepared for hundreds of shoppers at once.

Step four: Go live.

On April 17, shopping went live. First at 8am for our members, and then at noon to the general public.

The first wave of member sales came at a reasonable pace, giving our team a chance to experience the shopping experience from the back end. Then, a surge of more than a hundred orders came within the first hour of the sale going live to the public at noon.

(Photo by Liz Zabel)We experienced a few small hiccups, including issues with certain browsers not working, and had to troubleshoot these as they arose.

While orders were coming in, a small team managed questions via phone, email and social media while also working to confirm orders.

Most orders were placed within the first few hours of the sale, but continued until we closed sales at noon on May 2.

Step five: Order confirmation, fulfillment and pick-up procedure.

After closing sales and confirming all the orders (as well as issuing some refunds due to low inventory), Event Coordinator Sarah Botkin organized pick-up times (specific dates and time windows) for each order so that we could maintain safe social distancing for staff and shoppers. Botkin, along with a few other staff members and volunteers, worked tirelessly behind the scenes fulfilling orders, while also maintaining social distancing to the best of their ability.

In the end, the Spring Plant & Art Sale brought in more than 600 individual orders this year, with over $25,000 in sales. This not only included plants, art, and items from vendors, but also items from our Creekside Shop such as Maple Syrup, Honey, farm-fresh eggs from Etzel Sugar Grove Farm, jams and more. We also gave shoppers the option to add a donation to their purchase, which brought in nearly $4,000 from 197 shoppers.

If your staff is considering an online sale, here’s our advice:

Indian Creek Nature Center Plant Sale (Photo by Liz Zabel)Be as organized as possible up front. Allow reasonable time to gather information and upload photos (photos and descriptions help sell items).

    • Check in with your team often to make sure everyone is on the same page with expectations.
    • Be prepared for any technological problems that may occur.
    • Have a staff member on call each day to answer customer questions and troubleshoot problems.
    • From Event Coordinator Sarah Botkin: “It is always the area that you anticipate having the least amount of problems that you end up having the most issues with. Pulling orders sounds easy enough, but when you have multiple vendors with the same variety of plants, plants that have been labeled with a slight deviation of their name, and volunteers that are not familiar with the types of plants they are working with, attention to detail becomes extremely important! One effect of that is needing extra time when pulling over 600 orders. On the positive side, the people purchasing plants tend to be a bit more on the forgiving side when mistakes are made knowing that we are all going through a new and crazy time. They are grateful the event wasn’t canceled and we found a way to make it happen.”
Quick transitions can still be successful

Pivoting the Plant & Art Sale online was certainly no easy feat, but our staff is incredibly proud of the event we managed to successfully pull off in a short matter of time!

p.s. The Spring Plant & Art Sale isn’t the only ICNC event to go virtual. We’ve transitioned several programs online, including our Backyard Chickens Workshop, “What’s The Buzz?” Beginning Beekeeping Workshop, Preschool Trail Trekkers program and more.


Liz Zabel is the Marketing Manager at Indian Creek Nature Center, as well as a photographer, videographer and all-around storyteller. A former journalist, Liz joined the Nature Center staff in October 2018, where she proudly promotes ICNC’s mission to create #championsofnature through environmental education, leadership in land protection and restoration, and encouraging responsible interaction with nature.


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