Can the 'barbecue brigade' drive up plant sales?

Garden centres take note of people wanting to decorate gardens for summer living.

Shoppers: colourful flowers seen as increasingly popular for making gardens look good while entertaining guests - image: HW
Shoppers: colourful flowers seen as increasingly popular for making gardens look good while entertaining guests - image: HW

The "barbecue brigade" want to liven up their patios with colourful flowers for entertaining guests in the summer. This means after a slowing of sales in May especially and also June following a strong start to the season, there are plenty of sales still to pursue before autumn.

Bedding grower Mike Smith, director of WD Smith & Son in Essex, says people buy plants in warmer weather and they can do that in June, July and August. "Gardening has changed a bit,' he notes. "You don't see sales in the same numbers and it's obviously slowed up but there are more sales in those months than there used to be. There are less traditional gardeners around and people decorate their gardens for summer living and if they're entertaining and using the garden as an outdoor room they make it look good when friends are around."

The end of the peak box bedding season is traditionally deemed to fall on the same day as horse racing's Epsom Derby, which was on 3 June this year, while others believe that Wimbledon tennis fortnight, which starts on 3 July, signals the end of plant buying.

Newey Group's Alex Newey says plant sales really slow down now when the school holidays begin in mid July. "The next weeks are important because, like any business, all the profit comes in the last weeks."

Turnover at Hillview Group's 11 Midlands centres was 30% up at the end of April but it is now likely to be 10% by the end of June. Chief executive Boyd Douglas-Davies suggests that summer is increasingly about an "instant meal brigade" gardener who would buy curry or pizza from Waitrose and easy plants by Ball Colegrave from the garden centre.

Weather impact

Garden Centre Association (GCA) chief executive Iain Wylie points out that the south and Midlands had "miserable" weather at times in May, which impacted early to mid-May sales. While April GCA members' outdoor plant sales were up by 33.22% on April 2016 and overall sales showed an average year-to-date increase of 11.07%, their overall sales slipped almost 5% in June and year-to-dates slipped to 6.4% ahead of midway through last year.

June outdoor plant sales were down by 7.5%, seeds and bulbs decreased by 16.37% and garden sundries fell by 7.32%.

Burston Nurseries managing director James Alcaraz says garden centres selling more added value and container plants now extends the season into August.

Longacres Bybrook Barn IT manager Michael Ainley reports that bedding plants have been one of the stand-out areas at the garden centre in Ashford, Kent (see profile, p49), since late May after three weeks of poorer weather made demand grow.

The north-south divide in sales is shown by Britain's highest turnover garden centre, with Longacres in Bagshot being about 4% by the end of June, while at Klondyke, which has 22 centres in the north and Scotland, overall sales are up by 16%. Compared to May 2016, GCA member sales in the southern part of the country were between nine to 13% down, whereas the north fared better with sales down by between two and 6%.

Sales at Bradford-based Tong Garden Centre were 30-40% up by the end of June. March and April were 42% up while May and June were 9% up. Tong came under new ownership in 2015 and has more than doubled turnover since then.

Julian Winfield, chief executive at the long-established south coast four-centre group Haskins, says overall sales by the end of June are likely to be flat compared to 2016.

Planters Garden Centre in Tamworth is 1-2% up overall this year. Simon Bourne, manager of Perrywood Garden Centre in Essex, forecasts that overall turnover will be 8% up by the end of June. Green Pastures in Norfolk was 30% up in April, 40% up in March and 1% in May.

Falling temperature

Martin Cowell, director at Newcastle-based Cowell's Garden Centre, says the second week in May was a "disaster" as temperatures fell to around 12-14 degsC. Tong's Mark Farnsworth says 15 degsC is the temperature that brings out gardeners. Cowell's recovered to be 1% down in May, with bedding and shrubs actually up 6% and perennials up 12%.

The HTA reports that overall garden centre sales for year to date were 12 per cent up by the end of April and 10% by the end of May, with May 6% down on 2016.

GCA centres with a turnover of less than £4m are up 11% on average to the end of June while the larger ones up by 5%. Sundries are up by 10% for the year to date, catering 7% and houseplants 3%

Member garden centre sales showed an average overall decrease for the month of 4.64% and an average overall year-to-date increase of 6.4%.

GCA chief executive Iain Wylie says: "The weather played a big factor in our member garden centres' May sales figures, with, contrary to the norm, the north having better weather than the south. However, all of our member garden centres had a tough job trying to top the figures from May 2016, which was the highlight of last spring."

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