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Garden Centres: What Are The Prospects For Spring 2021?

Planting gardening shutterstock_497726008.jpg

2020 turned out better for garden centres than many feared. What about Spring 2021 with lockdown #3 and supply problems through the ports?

A huge effort

Early reports show that garden centres rounded off a difficult year with good Christmas sales. Hillier were up 17% excluding restaurant sales, while Blue Diamond were up 15%. Others reported increases in the range of 3%-6%. 

For the year when 8 weeks of the peak season were lost garden centres have recovered to within a few % plus or minus last year excluding restaurants. 

Sam Bosworth, with 2 garden centres in the Midlands, spoke for many, “From a business perspective we have ended the year in a strong position, but it has taken a huge effort to get to this point. I would never have envisaged this at the start of lockdown 1.”

The next two months will be dire… but

Garden centres now face the challenge of trading through a 3rd lockdown. Early reports indicate that sales have slowed as shoppers stay home. So how do garden centres view the next few months?

Berwick Garden Centres have 2 garden centres in the North East plus one in Scotland that is open only for take-away food and pets. Nick Crabbie expects the next two months will be dire, but then... “Spring sales should be strong provided all the stock comes through. I am forecasting growth over the next 12 months.”

Haskins believes it could be better than average as long as Garden Centres remain open. MD Julian Winfield said, “We can already see since the new year customer spend has remained high and good interest in core gardening.”

Bosworth reminded us of the first rule of garden centre retailing, “Good weather rather than good economic times is always true, so good weather at key times, regardless of Covid, will still be the key factor.”

Concerns over supply

Good autumn sales have left residual stock levels lower than usual at garden centres. Thus, according to GIMA, pre-season order levels are about double last year’s level.

Haskins said, “The whole trade has the potential for hardy plant shortages, currently stocks are low in the system, so if we have an early spring we will have a challenge getting what we need.”

Problems are already evident with garden furniture. At the end of January, Haskins will have approximately 24 sets on the shop floor compared with 36 last year.

Suppliers have been aware of the situation and have been building stocks. But they face delays through the ports and the shortage of shipping containers. There is also a problem with plastic bottles. Coronavirus has diverted the manufacturing capacity to medical priorities, leaving garden suppliers short.

Garden centres are also getting prepared. Martin Stewart said his family group of centres will be ready, whatever happens in the spring. “We have learned to be so much more flexible. We have increased orders, because whatever happens Stewarts won’t be short of stock. It is always our policy to be full of stock and to go for it.”

Chris Francis for Hillier says, “We have been building stocks ahead of season well above our normal levels. I hope the supplier base has also prepared itself for the increased level of trade we all expect. On plants, we… have significantly increased production in all plant categories including categories we have not previously grown. We now have more plants on the ground at our nurseries than we have ever had before.”

Is there a permanent uplift in gardening interest?

‘Yes’ says Hillier.

‘Yes, but…’ says Bosworths, “Yes there will have been a permanent uplift in interest in Gardening, but the spend will not all come our way. "Newbies" will spend at a variety of places, and Garden Centres will not necessarily be top of their list. “

‘Maybe’ says Julian Winfield, MD of Haskins, “I think the pandemic will remain long in our customers memories and how the home and garden became the most important thing for them and their immediate family… But we need to understand that once people can travel, go out to restaurants and theatres etc again they will move back to old routines quickly.

‘No’ says Berwick Garden centre, “When disposable income can be spent on foreign holidays again, gardening sales will likely suffer. But if there is a lasting movement to combat climate change this could play to the advantage of the garden centre industry.”

Online

In Lockdown 3 garden centres are much more prepared than last March to switch to online sales.

Hillier said, “During the first lockdown we resurrected an antiquated webshop platform and over six weeks achieved plant sales of £1m online. This has accelerated the development of our new online proposition that is on track to go live in February this year.”

Blue Diamond has also developed a permanent online offer and Haskins will start its click and collect in February, which will be lock down driven as “last May, once we had been open for a few weeks, the demand fell off.”

Flexibility and Communication

The industry has never faced such an unpredictable immediate future. Vicky Nuttall of GIMA said that more than ever the industry needs flexibility and communication.

Source : Reproduced with kind permission from George Bullivant at GardenForum

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12 January 2021

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