Overall bulb sales in April this year were standing at more than £231.5m, representing a 15 per cent increase over that of April 2006, according to the HTA Garden Industry Monitor. This is a good rise and bulb growers and retailers should be pleased. But this is across the whole of the bulb market, which is split between some significant sectors.
There are bulbs for Christmas, bulbs for summer flowering, bulbs for autumn and winter, bulbs for pots, exotics and, of course, the biggest market of them all - spring-flowering bulbs. Most amateur gardeners, and even those who know almost nothing about gardening, will be able to list a few of the famous spring-flowering bulbs: daffodils, tulips and crocuses almost certainly are the first to be mentioned.
Delve deeper, however, and snowdrops, hyacinths and bluebells will be put forward. But then there are dozens of others, from grape hyacinths and fritillaries, to triteleias, scillas and even delicate bulbous irises.
The fact that there are many more types that are little known suggests that there is a distinct opportunity for growers and retailers.
Also, despite the maturity of the bulb market, it is by no means standing still. There is a constant re-invigoration as a result of product innovation, much of which comes from the world centre for bulbs - the Netherlands.
Spring bulbs are essentially a counter-cyclical product, driving trade and footfall at the end of summer and into early autumn. As such, they can represent as much as 50 per cent of turnover in the key autumn sales period.
So, just how should garden centre managers be maximising this potential? Here are 10 key ideas:
1. REMIND CUSTOMERS ABOUT BULBS
A key problem in the bulbs market is that customers forget. When autumn comes round they have forgotten just how easy it was to put those bulbs in last year. They've forgotten, too, what a riot of colour the bulbs produced six months previously.
UK manager for bulb and perennial distributor Simple Pleasures, Tim Woodland, says: "Customers also tend to forget how low maintenance bulbs are. These are the easiest of any plant to grow. Put them in and leave them. They flower and do it every year. Everything a bulb needs to grow (nutrition and moisture) is already in the bulb. All it needs is the soil for anchorage and the right time of the year, and it will flower. Somehow, customers need reminding of this."
Marketing director Adam Taylor of Taylors Bulbs agrees. "We have to stress how easy it is: buyers just have to dig a hole, put in a bulb and it will flower."
Customer knowledge is a tricky issue. Half the world knows nothing; the other half knows a little or a lot. It's probably safe to assume a low level of expertise on behalf of the average customer, yet they also have a high level of expectation. On a positive note, managing director Frank Teeuw of Lincolnshire-based Gee Tee Bulb Company believes that customer knowledge is consistently getting better - the broadsheets and TV are forever feeding the enthusiasm and gardeners are expanding their knowledge via websites.
2. LOOSE VERSUS PRE-PACKED
Most bulbs are sold now in packs, which are seen as quick and easy purchases. Focusing on pre-packed product is good retailing practice, but don't ignore the potential created by selling loose bulbs. This is an excellent distinction from the sheds, and pick 'n' mix customers are less price-sensitive. Why do you imagine supermarkets and cinema foyers have followed Woolworths down this line with sweets?
"Packs are fine and very shoppable", says Woodland. "They can look impressive on the racks, with the colourful card fronts. They also appeal to the lazier customer, who wants everything already sorted for them. But they need to be replenished frequently."
He adds: "Loose bulb bins are an entirely different proposition. They give the feeling of plentiful volume and it enables the more diligent customer to pick and choose. They will be more focused on quality, too, so you will need to make sure that the bulbs are clean - removing the loose scales and sweeping out the dust will be worthwhile."
Taylor agrees, and adds that loose bulbs "give a traditional feel". And remember that when the customers fill their bags they will always add one or two bulbs for luck, which if you sell by weight is a bonus.
But if you are selling just by the bag there are drawbacks with loose bulbs - those customers who squeeze a few extra bulbs into the bag will help deplete the stock prematurely. And there are no bar codes, which can make stock control difficult.
3. GO FOR COLOUR
What makes the customer buy? Taylor says it's all about colour. He recommends pushing bold, solid banks of colour.
Garden retail consultant Eve Tigwell agrees. She says: "Merchandise by colour rather than by variety. When centres do this their sales invariably rise. The customer wants a bank of colour, so merchandise to represent customer aims."
Packs on racks are generally sold by colour, but Woodland reckons that this can be tricky to get right. He says: "It may seem a simple thing just to arrange the packs by colour, but if you take the whites, for example, there are creams, white with a hint of pink, or white with a flush of blue. If the customer wants pure white, they might be disappointed. And if you do distinguish between the colours, do you put the ones with a hint of blue in the blue section, and pink-flushed whites in the pink section?
"Don't forget, also, that if the colour card promises a colour and it is slightly off, this can annoy a customer. These may all seem small things, but they can be tricky to figure out properly."
Another colour tip: interior decorating is still a hugely popular genre for TV programmes, and home-style magazines continue to abound, so watch the decorative trends presented in the media to predict new "wants" in the garden.
4. GO FOR HEIGHT
Colour isn't the whole story when it comes to the consumer choosing which bulbs to buy. Teeuw reckons that size is moving ahead of colour. Woodland says: "I am seeing more people becoming interested in the heights of the plants. Consumers may not have heard of the tulip variety 'Red Riding Hood' - one of the oldest and best-selling varieties - but they know they want a short, red tulip. Shorter bulbs are in great demand, because these days people have smaller gardens and grow more plants in containers. Anything with a 'dwarf' label seems to grab the attention of passers by. The taller bulbs are for mid-way and the backs of borders, and most customers realise the differences so need to be told which are which."
5. STOCK A WIDE RANGE
The "dwarf" label certainly applies to the vast majority of miscellaneous spring bulbs that can be stocked. Woodland would like to see a greater emphasis put on the more unusual bulbs, but admits that the real volume sales will still come from loose daffodils, tulips and hyacinths.
He says: "Crocuses and snowdrops are dwarf and mainstream, but there are some gorgeous lesser-known products, such as Fritillaria, Scilla, Muscari and Dracunculus. It is certainly worth pushing these as ideal bulbs for containers and even windowboxes. I believe the UK public is beginning to buy more unusual bulbs, with a slight move away from the standard ranges."
Taylor adds: "My key message to retailers is simple: aim to be different, offer a broad range and, along with proven winners, buy in some new products to maintain the vibrancy of your offering."
6. GOOD POINT-OF-SALE
Bulb producers supply a range of high-value point-of-sale (PoS) material - huge posters, banners and streamers. Unlike some businesses these aren't always free, but they are usually supplied at cost. This is actually joined-up marketing - charging at cost for PoS means that suppliers are directing their spend against those retailers who are going to actively sell - you don't pay for PoS and then neglect to use it.
Woodland says: "The marketing magic in the bulbs sector is pictures: the bigger, the better and, above all, they must be accurate." The picture is selling the promise and customers have an infallible capacity to remember if the promise didn't match up to the reality.
Several bulb producers have created a style of photographic presentation based on picturing the product in its natural environment. It is eye-catching and "real world" marketing images work best.
Woodland adds: "It is extremely important that you position the pictures well. If the pictures are low down, say between the bench and the floor, customers tend to miss them. Eye level is always best."
7. BE PRICE SENSITIVE
This is still a price-sensitive market and nobody expects that to change in the foreseeable future. The classic price points of £1.99, £2.99, £4.99 and £9.99 all apply, with a trend towards bigger packs with higher perceived value becoming more popular. This is geographically sensitive, being dependent on local garden sizes.
Note that the British market is at odds with other major world markets. In the UK we're still predominately value driven: quantity ahead of quality, hence the big packs. In other major markets, however, particularly Germany and the US, it's the size of the bulb that gets the sale.
In the main, growers take the view that the UK market is slowly moving in that direction, and that it will eventually be driven by quality rather than quantity.
8. PROACTIVE BAGGING
A piece of simple advice from Woodland: "When you have free or price-reduced bags for loose bulbs, they are usually pinned up for the customers to fill. It is very simple to pre-fill a few bags. These will always be taken first. It prevents congestion around the bulb bins at busy periods and is something easy for junior staff to do during quiet moments. Surprisingly, it also speeds up the sell-through of stock."
Given that products are not all delivered on the same day, early displays may sell out. If so, tell your customers. Tigwell says: "A sign saying "New stock arriving" is very simple and far better than an unexplained gap, which simply looks like poor merchandising."
9. EXTENDING THE BULB SEASON
Garden centres may believe that they have got the timing right, but virtually all the suppliers believe that they end their bulb season too early. They do have a point - bulbs planted right up until the end of November will flower on time, and tulips can go in later still.
But the problem is Christmas. No one wants to miss that boat and as a consequence bulbs have to take a back seat - stores have only so many hotspots from which to sell.
Timing is everything in retail and it's a difficult juggling act. But why not create a new and exciting spring bulb display in a different part of the centre, away from the Christmas area? With PoS explaining the potential of late planting, bulb sales could usefully be extended.
Also, given that the bulb market comes around as regular as clockwork, meaning PR can be planned far ahead, some serious work between the centre and the more local press (which has the right audience) is wholly practicable.
10. DON'T FORGET LINKED SALES
Bring into the bulb displays linked sales, so selling the whole bulb package. Taylors tries to persuade centres to create their own "bulb lands" - sales areas dedicated to bulbs. These should contain all the items - such as compost, tools, planters, windowboxes, bonemeal and even decorative pebbles - that customers might want. These linked sales are important as, by themselves, bulbs are relatively cheap and unlikely to make a significant profit.
The firm also encourages centres to use their hotspots - the ends of aisles and spaces near the till - where shoppers are most likely to make impulse purchases. Another way to boost sales is through gift pots and boxes. These often contain pots, bulbs and compost, so people can grow the bulbs themselves. Perhaps try a range of Delft bowls with traditional spring bulbs.
The biggest impact on the customer will come with your displays. As well as dynamic grouping of colours, plan for a bit of retail theatre: use silk flowers, think big and hang drapes to stress those colours. Consultant Eve Tigwell's overall strategy message is "be brave".
She cites a centre that used a rowing boat as the framework for a display. There's no obvious link but it worked because it was different and imaginative. On that point, the windmills and clogs motif may have been over-used.
Millbrook Garden Centre in Gravesend, Kent, has over the years produced a series of effective novelty displays. A representative said: "One year we had a display called the Magic of Bulbs. We had rabbits coming out of top hats and lots of playing cards. We also had a theme of 'Queen of the Night', with a flowing tent made out of purple and green cloth and a fountain of bulbs. We had mauve tulips and silk flowers so people could see how they'd look. It was very effective and boosted sales."
Starting to sell bulbs early is Eve Tigwell's advice. Give yourself the whole of the school holidays to sell in - and this will get the kids deeply involved, too.
The bulb is an ideal way to teach kids about gardening, and can be instrumental in recruiting the next generation of gardeners. You can even generate further sales for children to plant in their school gardens.
Kids Create Eden is a nationwide competition launched this year by The Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Centre in partnership with Cornwall's Eden Project. Involving primary schools across the country, it aims to enhance the natural environment of participating schools and give children the chance to visit the Eden Project, to have their own design planted in bulbs on-site.
All the kids had to do was design a planting scheme for an area of land at their school and write an explanation of why their design should win. The closing date has passed and at this time it is unclear whether the initiative will be repeated.
But you could do your own thing. Contact local schools directly and offer some weekday planting tuition to groups of children. Offer a sack or two of bulbs and get the kids to design their own patches. It's all good PR fodder too.
Washway House Farm, Holbeach, Spalding,
Lincolnshire PE12 7PP
Tel: 01406 422266
PO Box 364, Winchester, Hants SO22 5XZ
Tel: 01962 860144
Jacques Amand UK
The Nurseries, Clamp Hill, Stanmore,
Middlesex HA7 3JS
Tel: 020 8420 7110
Gee Tee Bulb Company
Field Works, Common Road, Moulton Seas End, Spalding, Lincolnshire, PE12
Tel: 01205 260412
Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Centre
Tel: 020 7915 4776