How is the Swiss garden centre sector faring?

Erwin Meier-Honegger holding soil up shaped like a heart.

Erwin Meier-Honegger

Episode four of our ‘Exploring Europe’s Garden Centres’ series takes us to Switzerland, where we interviewed Erwin Meier-Honegger, an unconventional garden retailer who likes challenging the status quo while running his garden centre in Dürnten.

Fourth-generation garden centre owner Erwin Meier-Honegger is an active member of the industry body JardinSuisse and was formerly involved within the association’s board of directors.

Between 2005-2007 he served as the President of the International Garden Centre Association (IGCA). He took his early education at Centre Horticole de Lullier in Geneva and St. Gallen University, a Business Management, Economics, Law, Social Sciences, International Affairs and Computer Science school. At the same time, he took a course at the MAZ Swiss School for Journalism.

Erwin runs a garden centre near Zurich in the German-speaking part of Switzerland with his sister Bettina Walser and father, Erwin Meier, Snr.
Erwin’s great-grandparents founded the company in 1894 as a mail-order company. Their successors added a plant nursery, a landscaping department, and a gardening magazine to the business to provide customers with even greater bespoke services.

A visionary entrepreneur inspired by the fledgling garden centre business in the UK and Germany, Erwin’s father decided to expand the business by opening a garden centre in Zürcher-Oberland near Zurich. The year was 1964, and it began in all modesty with the outside offering not more than ten parking spaces.

Over the years, the company evolved into what it is today: an ultra-modern garden centre focused on seasonal, sustainably produced plants supported by a wholly owned plant nursery. Expertise, trustworthiness, and experience are the motto of Meier AG Garten Center.

Bird’s eye view of Ernst Meier AG in Dürnten.

FloraCulture International: We love people who use poetry to reflect on the things in life and business. On your LinkedIn page, you quote, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men go awry’. Narrowing it down to the Swiss garden centre business, which things do you think is better not to plan as they always turn out differently?

Erwin Meier-Honegger: “In addition to the well-known weather dependency of our industry, the positive and negative impact of digital disruption on our industry also seems quite unpredictable. After all, our products and services benefit our physical and psychological wellbeing and offer a depth of experience. Plants connect us with nature, while the digital age increasingly alienates us from the real thing. What does this mean for our business models? Will we need a garden centre in the metaverse? To answer this question, I recommend watching a short video clip featuring actor Danny DeVito and rapper Awkwafina, where they explain the Discord online service. You can find it on this link.”

How is the Swiss garden centre industry faring?

“In the Swiss market environment, we are privileged and almost worry-free. Consumers are still willing to consume. They are willing to pay a premium for good advice and quality. Nevertheless, the garden centres are concerned about rising costs.”

A garden centre is a garden centre is a garden centre… (thank you, Gertrude Stein). What is your definition of a garden centre?

“Since every plant display in every DIY store calls itself a garden centre, this term is unappealing to me. Therefore, the Meier logo comes with its own tagline: ‘Treffpunkt für Gartengeniesser’, which in English translates as ‘Meeting place for gardening enthusiasts’.”

Swiss garden centre shoppers are still willing to spend and pay a premium for good advice and quality.

What portion of your garden centre business (in %) represents the ‘Living Plants’ category, and in which sub-categories (houseplants, cacti, perennials, grasses, annuals etc.) do you see most growth happening?

“Up to 50 per cent of our assortment are plants (share of turnover). Most of the growth is happening in the categories Vegetables, Herbs, Fruit & Berries.”

How does your wholly-owned plant nursery in Tann benefit your garden centre business?

“Our nursery gives us the credential to call ourselves gardeners and the basis for customers’ trustworthiness of our expertise. In addition, our nursery is indispensable to logistically managing the masses of plants we sell during the season and ensuring availability. Without compromising quality or taking up too much sales space. And last but not least, we can cultivate special plant ranges in our nursery that are otherwise unavailable on the market.”

Last month, the annual open days for the European bedding plant industry, FlowerTrials, put hundreds of novelty bedding plants in the spotlight, all picture perfect, uniform in growth habit, profusely flowering, hardy, visually appealing and much more. If you ponder over the number of new plants appearing on the market each year, with only a few making it into the second or third year, what conclusions can be drawn?

“Breeders, young plant producers and growers are manoeuvring our sector into the same dilemma as seen in the world of fashion. ‘Fast horticulture’ is no less a nuisance than the ‘fast fashion’ trend. And there seems to be no counter-trend – unfortunately.”

Ernst Meier manages an international supply chain for collecting, handling, and assessing plants across Western Europe to ensure the best quality reaches the customer. What is quality?

“I think there are almost no poor-quality plants on today’s market. The quality suffers in the logistics process. Quality means partnerships that respect the added value of a healthy and sustainable garden industry.”

Does focusing on sustainability undermine or improve the financial results of a garden centre business?

“It is the same with all national and international climate goals: Will the efforts to achieve them threaten our economic prosperity? Most certainly. Climate action does not come free of charge. The CEO of the GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute for Economic and Social Studies, and a futurist and trade expert, David Bosshart, once said: ‘Can we sell renunciation?’.”

How significant is the social pressure on your business to produce more sustainably?

“The pressure is surprisingly moderate. The public is not aware of the ecological issues facing our industry. People assume that the gardening world is an ‘unclouded’ world. As long as the industry keeps this ‘under the lid’, it will remain quiet. However, I doubt whether this is the right way to go. I prefer to call challenges and problems by their names early on.”

What tools or certifications does Ernst Meier AG use in its sustainability approach?

“We have our subscription magazine, Pflanzenfreund, as a ‘company spearhead’ to address and honestly work through the environmental challenges of our business and industry. In parallel, we are now starting the process of an uplifting and comprehensive environmental impact report.”

Switzerland has one of the highest levels of GDP per capita in the world. Is ‘green living’ a luxury affordable only to the middle and upper classes?

“Green living has less to do with money than with renunciation. And the more money is available, the harder it is to renounce. The challenges around a green lifestyle are not the same globally.”

Last month, voters in Switzerland backed a new climate bill designed to cut fossil fuel use and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It reminded me of another referendum in which the Swiss showed themselves at the forefront of environmental protection. On 6 December 1987, the Swiss people, by referendum, voted for a legal framework to protect the upland moor of Rothenthurm and also other moors in Switzerland. This prevented the construction of a military camp on the mire and resulted in peat bog protection being enshrined in the Swiss constitution. How did the Swiss garden centre industry deal with the referendum’s outcome back then?

“In Switzerland, the Rothenthurm Initiative fired the elimination of peat in horticulture. So, we began on this path more than 20 years ago. When I told my international colleagues that there would soon be a time without peat in horticulture, I was declared crazy. Today it is simply normal. In the international arena, Rothenturm has little meaning. In Switzerland, it was simply an accelerator, a mosaic stone in the context of ecologisation.”

How must Swiss garden centres position themselves to be proactively part of the peat debate?

“Peat is no longer an issue in the hobby substrate sector. All bagged compost has been peat-free for several years. Production has been virtually peat-free for some time in cultivating perennials and shrubs. There are challenges with imported plants, annual plant production and vegetable starter plants.”

What are the opportunities and challenges when reducing peat at your plant nursery in Tann?

“Our extensive plant ranges. Adapting a few species’ cultivation conditions for peat-free substrates is easy. However, using a universal substrate with less than 40 per cent peat content is very demanding for a nursery with a large depth and breadth of assortment. Especially as many substitutes are not ecologically superior.”

Strong-selling products include potted herbs in a wide variety.

What has been the secret to your thriving customer base?

“There is no recipe. Much of it is a matter of chance – being in the right place at the right time. It is like asking why a child becomes a valuable adult. Many factors influence the way – which can never be summarised in an educational guidebook.”

Founded in 2007, Switzerland’s national industry body for ornamental horticulture, Jardin Suisse represents 80-90 per cent of the Swiss garden centre sector and acts as its voice that connects garden centres in the country and supports them to adapt, educate and work. JardinSuisse comprises the Gärtnermeisterverbandes (around 1,500 members), Verband Schweizer Baumschulen (around 100 members), Gartencenter- Fachverband (around 50 members) and the Verband Schweizer Forstbaumschule (approximately ten members). Tell us about your global view on the challenges and opportunities for ornamental horticulture in Switzerland and the country’s role in the international arena.

“One key to Switzerland’s success is to be irrelevant in a global context. This rule also applies to the industry. The nation’s green sector is far too small and insignificant to have international relevance. Thus, the merger was crucial for solidarity within the sector and to keep the structures lean.”

How many Swiss garden centres are independently owned, and how many are run by Groups?

“Apart from the DIY chains, there are five garden centre groups in Switzerland. However, their ownership structures are also independent, with no more than ten branches in each case. In addition, there are perhaps 50 single-site garden centres. There is no reliable information on the estimated annual turnover of JardinSuisse members combined. There are practically no reliable figures for the Swiss garden market. The market is too small and insignificant to collect such figures.”

Is there such a thing as a typical Swiss consumer taste regarding garden centre products?

“Switzerland is incredibly heterogeneous. There are four language regions whose inhabitants have different and sometimes even contradictory demands. In Switzerland, we often say, “Switzerland does not exist”. By this, we mean that there is no unity. Our diversity in the smallest space is hardly tangible for foreigners. As such, identifying the top three best-selling categories within a Swiss garden centre is impossible. Swiss garden centres are set up so differently depending on the region and character. Generally speaking, it is more the plant ranges.”

How fierce is the competition from DIY stores?

“It is a friendly competition – not to be compared with the competition in other European neighbouring countries. Due to limited land reserves and high overhead costs, the stakes are similar for all market participants.”

You are an unconventional business entrepreneur, judging by the columns you write for the Der Gartenbau trade publication. What are the Swiss garden centre sector’s biggest future challenges and opportunities?

“To counteract the skilled labour shortage, wages in our industry must increase. Products procured according to ecological criteria have tighter margins. The effort to offer customers an experience beyond that of online channels is getting more expensive. Ecological behaviour is not possible without sacrifice and less consumption. The government will legally restrict our plant ranges to protect biodiversity. Heat and drought reduce gardening possibilities. These are the challenges, which, of course, also hold opportunities.”

Finally, an out-of-scope question: you have a double-barrelled family surname, Meier-Honegger. It conjures up images of the landed gentry in the Netherlands. What is the origin of the family name?

“My father has the same first name as me, Erwin. So, he was Mr Meier Senior; I was Mr Meier Junior. When my grandmother was still in the business, she was Mrs Meier Senior, and my mother was Mrs Meier Junior. So, Mr Meier Senior was married to Mrs Meier Junior. That was complicated enough. When I married, we stopped distinguishing between Junior and Senior, and I combined my wife’s surname with mine. Since then, my father and I can be clearly distinguished.”

This article was first published in the July-August 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.

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