It is ‘good buy’ to coronavirus in UK garden centres

Author: Rachel Wakefield

Webinar, UK: Pent up frustration with social isolation, no holidays abroad this year, time off work furloughed, unseasonal hot weather, a new interest in the garden! It seems the British do not like to complain, but they do like to queue. So, when lockdown began to ease, with the opening of garden centres on 13 May, the queues were literally around the block.

In a webinar, hosted by Trevor Pfieffer of Garden Trade News, its guests Boyd Douglas-Davies, Mike Burks, Adam Wigglesworth and Will Blake could not have been any happier with the results of the first week of trading.

First to air their opinion of lockdown, was Will Blake of St Peters Garden Centre in The Midlands. During prohibition, he had received a £30,000 legal bill from Worcestershire council for selling more than just essential ‘pet food’. He did not regret a thing and proclaimed his frustration at the flimsy interpretation of essential and non-essential shops. “It was incredibly, stressful, to see the big guys like Wilco and B&Q trading and we were not allowed to.”

Mike Burks, managing director of The Gardens Group, in the South of England, and chairman of the Garden Centre Association (GCA), offered a more cautionary note. “We continued trading, taking telephone orders. It was an expensive way of doing business, but the demand was there.” Burks explains the logistical juggling between his three centres, in Sherborne, Yeovil and Poundbury with just four vans and a small team were not always easy, along with the social distancing measures.

Upon ‘opening’ garden centres had to struggle with a different kind of stress. Adam Wigglesworth describes the queues to Aylett Nurseries, in St Albans, on 13 May, as being more than 175 people waiting before 8am. “It was nerve-wracking. We had not seen customers for more than nine weeks, and we had to change the way they were used to shopping. I needed to make every 1,000 square foot of the centre feel safe for them and my staff. We colour-coded the trollies and only let 100 customers in at a time to shop, not to browse.”

Boyd Douglas-Davies, director of British Garden Centres and president of HTA, agrees the training and preparation for the staff were vital. He added, although customers were respectful of the “shop and go” and “one-way systems” the trolleys were fully laden with stock, “some of our smaller sites continually had to rearrange and restock the bedding and vegetable sections.”

Blake agrees, “The average transaction value in the first week was double than normal compared to last year. Although, we have only really clawed back a 10% loss between the 23 March and 12 May.”

Garden Trade News asks: “Will supply match demand in the next few weeks?”

In response, Douglas-Davies says, at this moment in time, people want ‘lovely plants’, they are not after a specific selection.

Burks adds: “Normal seasonal offerings do not apply. Anything looking healthy, tall, strong or blooming, will sell for beddings or hanging baskets.”

This flexibility is good news for garden centres but not for nurseries, and Douglas-Davies is quick to point out that there is a need for retailers to recognise and support growers. “They have lost their spring season. We must be sensitive to the challenges they are facing. So, do not hassle for discount. In some cases, we have been supporting growers by collecting directly from their nurseries.”

Burks agrees, “Yes, we are taking deliveries at times of days that suit the nurseries rather than dictating the terms. We are even accepting plants without labels or bar codes, and just processing at the tills.”

The guests agreed that this is an extreme time, and the industry should be supportive and looking to make a recovery together in the middle of the summer season. The feeling was to keep gardening positively for people, new and old to gardening. But more importantly, come together and strengthen relationships between growers and garden centres.

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