How is the Italian garden centre sector faring?

Founded in 2012, Italy’s national garden centre association, the Associazione Italiana Centri Giardinaggio (AICG), is the voice of the Italian garden centre sector that connects garden centres in Italy and supports them to connect, adapt, educate, and act. An eventful second half of the year lies ahead for AICG as it will co-host the 2023 International Garden Centre Association (IGCA) congress in Northern Italy in September. AICG President Stefano Donetti has the details.

Stefano Donetti is the President of Italy’s national garden centre association, the Associazione Italiana Centri Giardinaggio (AICG). He also runs an ultra-modern garden centre in Romagnano Sesia, Northern Italy.

According to AICG, there are an estimated 350 garden centres in Italy. The country’s two largest garden centre groups are Viridea and Flover.

More than 90 per cent of Italian garden retailers represent family-owned, independent businesses. AICG represents 30 per cent of the Italian garden centre trade.

Estimating AICG members’ annual turnover is not easy as they vary in size, format, product portfolio, and regional scope. AICG says some large-scale businesses report annual revenues between €5 to 10 million.

On the other side of the spectrum, many medium to small-sized entrepreneurs generate annual turnovers between €500,000 and €2 million.

In keeping with tradition, most Italian garden centres are geographically concentrated in Northern Italy. Living plants make up 30 to 50 per cent of their businesses.

FloraCulture International: What is AICG’s definition of a garden centre?

Stefano Donetti: “The majority of centres began as a wholesale plant nursery, evolving into a retail garden centre over the years. A garden centre focuses on the public, specialising n the world of plants, gardening, home décor, outdoor living, and lifestyle. A garden centre represents the downstream part of the horticultural supply chain. It aims to help make the world greener by putting living plants in the limelight and highlighting the importance of locally grown products.”

Europe’s first garden centre trade association dates from the 1960s. Yet it took until 2012 for Italy to set up its garden centre association. Why is that?

“The truth is that AICG’s forerunner Assogarden operated for many years in the Italian market. Assogarden was a member of the International Garden Centre Association (IGCA) and launched several initiatives for the garden centre sector. Then, Assogarden was dissolved, and when IGCA wanted to host an international congress in Italy, Italian garden centres joined forces to found AICG.”

What do you feel is the biggest strength of AICG right now?

“The fact that we succeeded in building and nurturing a network of approximately 200 companies, including garden centres and their suppliers. Passion is what connects and drives us, and we share the same goals by focusing on education and customer experience. Ultimately, AICG is there to help its member businesses to grow.”

How is the Italian garden centre sector doing?

“Pretty well. We started 2023 on a bright note achieving growth. Businesses are evolving, and there’s still much room for expansion.”

How would you describe the mood and confidence among Italian garden centre customers?

“Reasonably upbeat. Consumer interest in garden plants, garden tools, and home decor is growing, as well as members’ average repeat purchase rate.

There’s a buoyant market out there thanks to several new garden centres.

They positively impact local communities, though the competition of mass market retailers -what we call in Italian the Grande Distribuzione Organizzata (GDO) becomes increasingly fierce.”

Italian style: Colour blocking is one of the secrets to a successful houseplant display.

What are the top three best-selling categories within an Italian garden centre?

“Living plants, gardening tools, while the trend for seasonal decorations grows.”

How aware are Italian consumers of the environment?

“The number of eco-conscious consumers is growing, and this is partially thanks to the influx of younger garden centre shoppers known for eco-friendly and sustainable values.

If I had to provide a customer profile of the average Italian shopper within garden centres, I would use three adjectives: passionate, conscious, and demanding.”

One of AICG’s tasks is spotlighting Italian homegrown plants under the ‘Made in Italy’ tagline. How do you do that?

“AICG focuses on Italian-grown plants and locally made products, and in collaboration with our members, we have run a series of successful campaigns. The ‘Daisies for Airc’ branded initiative was about selling 100 per cent locally grown daisies in support of cancer research carried out by Italy’s cancer foundation Airc. ‘Discovering Italian Plants’ aimed to promote Italian-grown greenery. More recently, AICG teamed up with young plant producer Gruppo Padana to launch ‘Top Tunia’. ‘Top Tunia is the blooming result of the company’s first steps into the world of plant breeding. Gruppo Padana launched this new line of early and abundantly flowering Petunias five years ago, and it now includes more than 20 varieties exclusively for sale to AICG members. AICG and Gruppo Padana jointly ran a brand campaign centred on local.”

Another focus is to increase autumn planting. What campaign do you have in store for this year’s autumn?

“Our members have hosted the Autumn Planting Festival in October for seven years. This initiative promotes the importance of the autumn months for the care of green spaces and planting. We are working on this year’s edition. Still, it will revolve around the regeneration theme, trying to stimulate our customers to adapt their habits, without haste and stress, by turning to eco-sustainable choices, changing words, and simplifying actions. We took inspiration from our many trips abroad with IGCA for this festival, where we could see how the Autumn season is central and celebrated.”

Agricola Home&Garden in Varese.

How big is the competition from DIY stores, and how do AICG members differentiate themselves from them?

“Competition is growing because DIYs are increasingly specialising in greenery. We are defending ourselves with our weapons, which are: expertise and professionalism (behind every garden centre, there is a floricultural history made up of generations, it is a family history); increasing choice and assortment, rejecting the standardised offer; superior quality of the plants that are grown in our nurseries. Garden centres also offer an all-around service from our expertise: repotting, deliveries, after-sales service, etc.).

We also have a plurality of professionalism in our teams, including artists and creative people who, for example, take care of the design and colour proposals. Finally, we often organise themed events in our garden centres, linked to the seasons or particular holidays, which create interest and always attract a large audience.”

What is the impact of the persistent drought in Italy on the country’s garden centre sector?

“It represents a massive challenge for our members, who do their best to put forward the most appropriate plants and irrigation systems and forces us to make important agronomic choices. This situation will lead to epochal changes: for example, turfgrasses are disappearing in favour of alternative solutions. It is certainly an issue that will feature in our next initiatives, but we have been going in this direction for some time now.”

An eventful second half of the year lies ahead, with the ICGA congress scheduled for September. Why should industry members attend, and what to expect at IGCA 2023?

“This is one of the most interesting annual appointments for all operators in the sector because it allows them to discover and get to know how each country has declined the culture of the garden centre. Operators must come to Italy and attend ICGA2023 because it will be a unique opportunity to discover our varied world of floricultural producers, the many companies that export to Europe and worldwide, and learn about the trends in the sector and the opportunities our country offers.

Italy is one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world, and this is reflected in the heterogeneity of the world of Italian garden centres. But Italy is also the country with the greatest presence of cultural heritage, including historic gardens, and this beauty radiates in all activities and characterises how we approach life and work. I believe these aspects will also be of interest to the participants of IGCA2023.”

Bonsai feature area with garden centre Viridea.

What are the biggest future challenges and opportunities for the Italian garden centre sector?

“To understand and manage environmental sustainability and climate change; to interpret the needs of new generations; to really be able to explain and make people understand the benefits of plants, overcoming the failed anthropocentric view.”

Tell me about your background in horticulture. What was the path you took to get to where you are today?

“I took my higher education in Switzerland, at the Centre Horticole de Lullier. After graduating, I returned to Italy, and since then, I have been working in the family business, becoming the owner in 2002. In 2012, I was among the founding members of AICG. I served as vice president for three years, and in 2019 I was elected president.”

Aside from co-organising the IGCA conference, what has been the most satisfying moment in your organisation’s history?

“We are extremely proud of our training programme for Garden Centre Manager, which we set up in collaboration with Minoprio’s horticultural school in Como. This was like having one of our dreams come true.

The course, which we think is unique in Europe, enhances management and professional skills and will lead to knowledgeable garden centre staff.

We are equally happy to organise a study trip to one of the European countries annually. Travelling abroad allows members to meet industry peers and opens our spirits. Joining and promoting solidarity projects that involve our members through plants: doing good by doing beauty certainly makes us better people.”

This article was published in the September 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.

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