Other areas of the garden market may be static or even on a decline, but seeds - and all the paraphernalia that goes with them - has enjoyed a boom period.
Both mail-order seed-catalogue sales and in-store retail seed sales are up. On the one hand this is surprising, as we have seen the disappearance of Woolworths from our high streets (and with it its Bees and Cuthberts seed brands). Together they dominated the seeds market during the 30 years between the 1960s and 1990s.
On the other hand, however, there are plenty of other retailers which are more than happy to jump on to the seeds bandwagon. Chief among these is Wilkinsons, the retailer with the closest modus operandi to Woolworths as we will probably ever see. Yet in addition B&Q, Homebase, Focus Do It All and 101 other retailers - from garage forecourts and supermarkets, to art shops and open-air markets - are all stocking a variety of seed packets in a bid to make a fast buck.
These general retailers are opportunists when it comes to seeds, which they see as easy. Seeds are easy to display. They are easy to buy in. And seeds are easy to shift, being low-ticket, convenience items with a definite window of activity throughout the year.
All of this means that the garden centre manager has massive competition when it comes to packet seed, and needs to do everything in their power to give priority to seed sales, and put this revenue stream at the top of the pile when it comes to maximising opportunity. Here are 10 ways to do it:
1. Identify your customers: "Knowledgeable"
There are three broadly grouped types of seed shoppers: "knowledgeable", "keen to do more" and "novice". Each will tend to have different buying habits that the retailer can appeal to at different times of the season.
Retail marketing manager of Mr Fothergill's Seeds, Ian Cross, says: "The 'knowledgeable' gardeners plan ahead. They know what they want and will be the bulk of buyers early in the season (ie. autumn and winter). Early-bird offers and multiple-purchase deals work well with them."
2. Identify your customers: "Keen-to-do-more"
"Keen-to-do-more" gardeners have some experience with seed. They have some idea of what they want to grow but will be more influenced by the weather. Cross says: "These gardeners become more active once the season is under way and the sun comes out! They are most likely to impulse-buy - going stores to buy a few favourites and being encouraged to buy more by appealing packaging and new varieties.
"Retailers can capture more from these shoppers by making sure the seed display is in an area that gets good footfall and by using point-of-sale material that highlights new varieties and features of the range.
"These are the gardeners that we aim our sub-ranges at. The idea of these is to break up the mass of packets into identifiable types that are easier to find, such as the organic seed, container varieties, wildflowers, wildlife-attracting varieties, salad-leaf varieties and so on.
3. Identify your customers: "Novice"
Cross explains: "The 'novice' may be completely new to gardening, or they may have had a go at growing, perhaps from young plants, and now want to try seeds. They tend to be much later-season shoppers, only buying when they see others growing, or see gardening on TV. They are most attracted to easy lines, such as seed tapes, mats for pots, herbs and salad varieties.
"Getting products in front of these shoppers is key, and small hotspot displays work well as they reduce the potential confusion of (browsing through) a 'big range' of seeds. For example, a small additional stand of herb seeds could gain extra sales when positioned away from the main seed display."
4. The "grow-your-own" trend continues
How long can it continue? We know that the vegetable-growing bubble will burst one day, and it has already had three good years.
Group plant area manager of Dorset-based Golden Acres Nurseries, Emma Green, says that retailers should still be capitalising on the GYO trend.
"It's going to be here for a while yet. Customers growing their own enjoy fresher produce than anything they can buy from the supermarket. We have been promoting vegetable seeds like never before," she says. "We tell our customers why vegetables should be grown, and then how easy they are from seed.
But, interestingly, national development manager for Thompson & Morgan, Richard Carrick, reckons that retailers should exercise a little caution. "The temptation is to throw everything at promoting vegetable seeds, when there are plenty of flowers to grow as well.
"Why should vegetable seed sales be at the expense of flower seeds? If you think about it, the average price of flower seed packets is around £2.49, while the equivalent for veg seed is £1.89-1.99. There is a 25 per cent disparity, so by ignoring flower seeds retailers are at risk of losing a significant revenue stream."
Suttons sales and marketing director David Arnold agrees: "The one thing no retailer should do is forget the flowers. This has always been historically the strongest area of the domestic seed business, and although vegetables are riding high at the moment, things always change."
5. Location is key
As Cross of Mr Fothergill's explains: "Seed is a visual sale. The biggest influence on purchase is the picture on the packet. That is what people are buying - the promise of what is shown on the packet.
"That is true even of experienced gardeners buying established varieties. We have found that sales increase when we find a better picture for the same variety. That's why we put a great deal of effort into finding the best possible pictures and keeping the picture as large and as clear as possible."
Cross continues: "With this in mind, it should be apparent that seeds will sell best if they are kept in a clear, well lit and prominent position, where the shoppers can get a good look at the whole stand."
Golden Acres' Green says: "One of our biggest problems is that of space, but we stock masses of seeds and I'm very keen that the lines are always in the most visible area. They have to be seen clearly and we are ever conscious of the browsability factor."
Having them displayed close to the tills helps sales as well as, rather like confectionery, seeds can be impulse items.
T&M's Carrick says: "Customers browse the seed racks in garden centres rather like magazines in WH Smith. They make an attractive and profitable area of the shop floor, and therefore deserve to be standing in the hot spots.
"But," he warns, "there should be space around them for customers to browse. If you don't provide that space, they won't linger and, ultimately, they won't buy."
6. Clean and uncluttered
The downside of making seed stands fully browsable, especially if there is plenty of browsing space available, is that customers have a tendency to clutter it up.
"Keeping the seed stands and racks clean and tidy is another fundamental that will make a difference to all seed shoppers," says Cross. "Browsing seed buyers are notoriously bad at replacing seed in its original place, preferring instead to put them anywhere convenient - even on the floor. As thankless as it may seem, a regular clear-up of the stand can keep them looking neat, tidy and infinitely more appealing."
Carrick agrees: "Appearance is everything, so it is really important to keep the seed area uncluttered. Your revenues will improve if you do this."
7. Promote seeds over plants
We must get over the resistance some people have for growing from seed as opposed to plants. They are not difficult to grow, and in many ways growing plants from this embryonic stage is what gardening is all about.
Head of retail at T&M, Neil Sharpe, says: "If your customers ask why they should bother with seeds, you can tell them: first, it is decidedly cheaper to grow from seed, which means that a wider range of plants can be grown for the money; second, they are not as difficult to grow as people think - gardeners with a little experience can usually get good results; and third, the seed packets always show a picture of the end result, and give full growing instructions (which you do not get with pots, and most trays and plugs)."
What's more, even the issue over the length of time it takes to get a seed to the flowering (or harvesting) stage has been addressed by seed companies. After all, those gardeners who say they have little time to wait for their plants to grow need something that will give them a return in a short period of time.
This was the motivation behind Suttons' launch of its Speedy Veg and Fast Flowers ranges, where gardeners have been able to grow their plants from seed in a matter of weeks. And Johnsons has brought out the Speedy Salads range (see panel, page 19).
8. Work with your supplier
Whatever you do, work with your seed supplier. Carrick says: "One of the key strengths with T&M is the depth of our flower range. It is important for retailers to work with their suppliers so that the best advice is given and that the right ranges are provided and promoted at the right time."
Green, who has been plant area manager for the Golden Acres group of garden centres for just three months, says: "We work very closely with the reps supplying our seed ranges. We take advantage of all the topical lines, the promotions and the multi-buy deals that we can. It's the only way to do it."
T&M's Sharpe is clear on one point, however: "If a garden centre has lots of seed suppliers, it can be confusing and daunting to the customer, with lots of packet styles, sizes, colours, and so on.
"I believe there is a growing trend for retailers to reduce the number to two or three key suppliers with good ranges. And it can be a real driver of sales if these suppliers can offer something new - either product, racking or promotions - every season."
9. Offer the newest varieties
And talking of "new", one way for retailers to keep up interest levels in seeds is to promote new lines. Every year new varieties are launched and it is crucial that these are brought to your customers' attention.
Suttons' Speedy Veg products are convenient and produce fast results which means that they particularly appeal to the novice or beginner gardener. New products include beetroot "Action", basil "Dark Opal", rocket "Victoria" and broccoli "Green".
Peas and beans are a major feature of the 2011 retail seed offer from Mr Fothergill's, with a brand new Pea and Bean Extra Collection comprising 36 varieties which have all been selected for their flavour. Ten are exclusive and, with the exception of the broad bean "Red Epicure", all are the result of modern breeding with the added benefits of vigour, high yields, ease of harvest and reliability in British conditions.
All 10 runner bean varieties are British-bred. The collection gives retailers the opportunity for additional sales from a stand-alone range.
Mr Fothergill's is also offering Hot Spot Stands - these are sized displays that are ideal for positioning select ranges of seed away from the main offer for extra linked sales or alternatively specific themes. The single-sided stands have 42 hooks and bear the message "Seeds to Sow Now". There are eight highlights including Wildlife Garden, Popular Vegetables and Herbs.
10. Drive linked sales
The opportunity for linked sales with seeds is greater than almost any other gardening line, as anyone buying seeds to take home and germinate will need pots and compost, trays and propagator units, as well as dibbers, Vermiculite, Perlite, tampers and watering cans with rose-ends.
Customers should be advised to buy the fungicide Cheshunt Compound for preventing damping-off disease. They may also perhaps like to use a plastic seed sower to help with the fiddly seeds, and could also do with a good book on propagation. And eventually, of course, they'll need plant fertiliser.
All of this should be displayed close to the seed area, so that the purchase of one type drives sales of the other.
JOHNSONS REVEALS ITS SEED OFFERINGS FOR 2011
The Speedy Salads sub-range proved so popular with gardeners when it was introduced in 2009 that it has been increased to include single varieties as well as mixtures. These include kale "Fizz" (ready for picking in just 21 days from sowing), and lettuce "Osterley" (a baby-leaf cos type).
Among the exclusive varieties launched for next year are six distinctly different blends of easy-to-sow Mixed Annuals - all named after popular song titles which are girls' names: "Billie Jean" gives a long-lasting display of sophisticated, cool tones; "Carrie Ann" is a soft, gentle mix of cottage garden types; and "Maggie May" is a blend of hot colours. "Barbara Ann", "Mary Lou" and "Peggy Sue" complete the line-up, and all are featured in Johnsons Quick Fix Easy Borders sub-range. The firm promises they "will give impressively quick results from a direct sowing in spring".
Johnsons' Modern Veg collection comprises 21 recently bred varieties selected for their resistance to common pests and diseases.
The plants' natural health and vigour reduces the need to use chemicals and will appeal to those who wish to garden as "greenly" as possible. Two exclusives in the Modern Veg range are lettuce "Feska" (with deep red, densely frilly heads which show resistance to aphids and downy mildew), and chives "Biggy", (with large, fleshy, rust-resistant leaves).
THE COMPLEX SEED MARKET
Today you will see the oldest companies such as Suttons, Thompson & Morgan and Unwins, alongside the relatively younger names such as Mr Fothergill's, Kings Seeds and Suffolk Herbs.
Over the past two decades, brands have been developed, bought and swallowed up by corporates, so that now just a handful of firms own the many seed brands available. For example:
- The old firm Thompson & Morgan (T&M) has diversified so that in addition to the Duchy Originals Organics seeds licence, it now owns a raft of other non-seed horticultural businesses. Tel: 0844 248 5383.
- The Suttons group of companies includes the following brands: Suttons (retail and mail order), Dobies (mail order) and Carters (retail). It also owns the Alan Titchmarsh Seeds and Eden Project Seeds brands, and the old Cuthberts name (which is no longer used). Tel: 0844 922 2899.
- Under the Fothergill's corporate structure you will also find Johnsons (retail), Country Value (retail) and DT Brown (mail order). Tel: 01638 751161 or 01638 554111.
- EW King & Co owns Kings Seeds and Suffolk Herbs (both are available via retail and mail order). Tel: 01376 570000.
- Westland Horticulture - known mainly for its pesticides, fertilisers and growing media - owns Unwins Seeds (retail and mail order). Tel: 01480 443395.
- Franchi Seeds of Italy is a worldwide brand, based in Italy, that has had a significant presence in the mainstream UK retail seeds market for some years. Specialises in vegetable seeds. Tel: 0208 427 5020.