Despite a few years of unprecedented uncertainty and change between 2020-2022, the UK garden centre industry has performed well, writes FCI contributor Anisa Gress.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, the Government identified the UK garden centre sector as an ‘essential business’ contributing to mental health and wellbeing, allowing them to continue trading. This allowed retailers to satisfy the growing number of new customers who took up gardening or spent more time improving their outside spaces resulting in an unexpected boom in sales. As restrictions lifted, the activity naturally slowed, but in 2022 the sector was valued at an impressive £3bn.
Holding on to new gardeners while continuing to inspire established customers is a challenge for the industry, but this is by no means the only one. Although parts of the border check process for importing from Europe have improved, there are still concerns. High energy prices and inflation rates are feeding the public’s disinclination to spend due to a fear of recession.
Added to these is a ban on selling peat products by 2024, environmental legislation which is adding another tier of administration, the struggle to recruit hospitality staff and last but certainly not least, the unpredictability of the weather.
But it’s not all doom and gloom; many challenges go hand in hand with opportunities. David Lydiat, Public Affairs and Policy Manager for the Horticultural Trades Association, predicts garden centres will come through. He says, “Garden centres are different because they provide a happier and more family-orientated day out.”
He believes they go above and beyond. “Customer service is excellent, and staff go the extra mile. You will struggle to find better,” says David, who adds that because of their older, more cash-rich customers, they will come through challenging times. “While footfall might be slightly less, garden centres are diversifying with, for example talks from specialists and other entertainment. They are not standing still.”
Another opportunity is the rise in demand for a simple coffee and cake or home-cooked lunch where garden centres excel. Many are expanding their retail food offer and increasing covers in cafes and restaurants, attracting local customers and those from further afield and, crucially, generating a revenue stream 12 months of the year.
At the Hillier Garden Centre group, Chris Francis, Garden Centre Director, thinks the UK’s economic situation will impact the industry for the next four to five years, and big-ticket items will be more difficult to sell. Even though it has a strong core of customers with high disposable income, it will not be immune. “We should be less affected because many are keen gardens which always want their gardens to look good. Hillier is known for its plants’ outstanding quality and value, and they will still be in demand,” he says.
An increase in catering is fuelled by customers changing their ‘eating out’ habits preferring an affordable treat at a garden centre rather than an expensive evening meal. “We must remain astute but are good at reacting to challenges.”
Thankfully, buying plants from Europe has gotten more accessible, especially with supply through The Netherlands.
However, some countries are still reluctant to trade with the UK. This, along with biosecurity, a move away from high-risk plants such as lavender because of Xyllla, and border checks has created a different approach to buying, says Julian Palphramand, Plant Buyer at British Garden Centres (BGC). This challenge has, however, resulted in opportunities for garden centres and the wider UK horticultural industry. He says BGC has a better understanding and has adapted well to the processes surrounding European imports. He adds: “The continuation of us wanting to buy more British plants is still driving us,” he adds. The upshot is positive with BGC, plus others, asking UK growers to increase the supply of home-grown plants, a development that will be interesting to follow.
When it comes to acquisitions and new developments, the sector remains fluid with a healthy mix of independent businesses and groups. The largest is Dobbies, backed by private investors with 2021 sales of £304m, up 36 per cent. Its 75 outlets include five (soon to be six) high street stores in carefully selected towns and cities, focusing on houseplants to satisfy the continuing high demand for indoor plants.
British Garden Centres, a group run by the Stubbs family, has 62 stores with sales of £161m, while Blue Diamond, with its headquarters on the island of Jersey, has 45 and sales of £255m. At the end of 2022, it acquired the three stores run by the Van Hage family, an established known horticulture since the 1960s. The Klondyke group and now Hillier Garden Centres both number 22 centres, Cherry Lane 20 (including those within its high street QD Stores), and there are 19 Notcutts Garden Centres.
Independent centres, including Pugh’s Garden Villages, The Old Railway Line, and The Gardens Group, continue to perform strongly and improve their quality, service, and customer offering. In January this year, the Garden Centre Association named Bents Garden and Home Destination Garden Centre of the Year.
UK garden centre industry: the essentials
According to the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), there are an estimated 2,000 garden centres (2018) in the UK. The UK’s five largest garden centre groups are British Garden Centres, Dobbies, Blue Diamond, Notcutts and Klondyke. This line-up has changed substantially over the last year with the demise of Wyevale Garden Centres.
UK households collectively spend £7.5 billion on garden goods and £2.4 billion on the services of gardeners and landscapers (2017). The average UK garden is 14m², with the average UK household spending £150 on their garden yearly
Houseplants have seen a huge resurgence recently, with millennials driving sales and popularising plants through social channels, especially Instagram. In turn, garden centres have invested in the space dedicated to houseplants and, as a result, are continuing to benefit through monthly increases in sales.
The lockdown in March came at a critical time for the industry, and while many garden retailers focussed on online sales, this impacted total sales volumes less than a normal year. This loss was especially concerning plants, with many bedding suppliers suffering huge losses and no market to provide.
The latest HTA figures show that garden centre sales across gardening categories throughout June indicate a strong recovery, with numbers up 34% on June 2019. Recovery has mainly been driven by exceptional gardening category sales as consumers spend more time in their gardens with growth in sales of garden plants, seeds, and gardening equipment, as well as garden leisure categories.
Consumers continue to make up for the lost time and the extra time spent in the garden by stocking up on supplies and higher-priced items such as garden furniture and barbecues. Sales growth in these bigger ticket items has also influenced higher transaction values.
This article was first published in the March 2023 edition of FloraCulture International magazine.