Buyer's Guide: Garden centres increasingly rely on gift and impulse sales

Home and gift products are a popular choice and are often bought on a whim, Matthew Appleby writes.

Home and gift is one of the more niche areas in garden centres. The products offered in this category have little to do with core gardening and, as such, upset the purists with their very presence.

Yet even traditional garden centres are realising they have to improve their gift offer if they are to keep up with rivals.

Garden Centre Association figures show that gifts were 6.7 per cent up by May 2010 in a flat overall market. This is in a recent recession.

So, what factors are driving the sector and what should you buy?

HTA president and Scotsdale Garden Centre managing director Caroline Owen said: "Home and gift is getting bigger. We're not as big in the sector as some garden centres but we're certainly working at improving our gift section. Looking at other garden centres I can see there is growth available."

The category is not easy to buy for, given many garden centre buyers' inexperience in the area and the big range of products that home, gift and toys covers. Owen says: "We tend to deal with loads of smaller suppliers. It's totally different to the rest of the business. Yankee Candles is a bigger supplier. We're also getting more into toys with the closure of Woolworths driving that sector."

Buying group AIS is one of the suppliers of toys to garden centres, including Scotsdales. AIS runs a toy show in June for its members.

Play-room, the toy division of AIS Stores, launched in 2008, with 63 suppliers. Members include Garden Retail Group members (GRO). Play-room offers a range of toys and related products, following its construction in some seven weeks. Suppliers include Bandai, Brainstorm, Character Options, Flair, Hasbro, Le Toy Van, Orchard Toys, Playmobil, Schleich, Tomy and University Games. Joyce Daly is controller of the toy division.

Orchard Toys marketing manager Lynda Freebrey believes garden centres are a growing market because they are looking to diversify. "Garden centres are becoming great places to buy a lot of things under one roof. It's not just plants and plant products anymore," she says.

Orchard supplies Notcutts, Garden Centre Group and Dobbies, among other groups and independents. New products from the company include the Little Puzzles range of double-sided puzzles, which retail at £5. The range of four products is aimed at threeto six-year-old children - the most lucrative age group for garden centres to target, according to Scotsdales' Owen.

There is a huge choice of products in the gift category. Garden centres can pick up on trends in the same way they can with plants. One top seller, for example, is meerkats. Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker says the ornaments, inspired by the TV advert for, sell as fast as he can order them in. He says they are impulse, fun buys and with a decent display, and priced at around £10, never fail to please customers.

The resin ornaments, from Vivid Arts, hit the market this year and sell at £5.99 to £49.99. Garden gnomes have made a comeback, too, at £5.99 to £14.99. A Vivid Arts representative explained: "We cannot get the meerkats made quick enough. One of our ethoses as a business is continuing to develop the range as we move forward.

"We have new designs out every month and I don't think we have launched a bad meerkat design yet. The whole country has gone meerkat-mad."

Some products cross over gift, clothing and practical uses, such as Classic Canes' walking sticks. "We're doing very well in garden centres, says MD Charlotte Gillan. "It's one of the last places where impulse buying is still going on. Our products are also necessities - you cannot put off buying a stick if you need one just because there's a recession."

The company is taking new floral-patterned sticks and folding sticks with crystals to Glee this year.

Candles are one of the few areas that garden centres see as a "must-stock". Supplier Bolsius is promoting secret new ranges at Glee, but currently Christmas deliveries are the focus. UK sales manager Mike Buttery said Bolsius was going into Dobbies garden centres this year, to add to the Dutch candle company's presence in Notcutts, Webbs, Bents and other independents.

"Garden centres are important to us. A lot of our business is at the back end of the year but garden centres give us the opportunity to sell products such as citronella candles in the summer," he added.

Its 2010 winter range includes rich and metallic colours; traditional reds mixing with taupes, purples, golds, silvers and black in finishes which range from ultra-glossy to rustic and frosted. One of the highlights is Winter Scenery - five fragrance-filled glasses decorated with images from nature that are the epitome of autumn and winter.

Bolsius will unveil new ranges at Glee this September. Wax Lyrical (formerly Colony) and Yankee are two of the other big suppliers in the market.

An interesting newcomer to the garden centre market is Angel Genie, which produces a range of limited-edition Giclee prints, greeting cards and calendars from the original fine art paintings, painted by renowned Thai artists.

The prints range from size A3 on archival paper and canvas to size A0 and retail prices range from £155 to £685 inclusive of VAT. Calendars cost £9.99 to £14.99 while fine art greeting cards are £2.99, inclusive of VAT. The company will be at gift show Top Drawer at Olympia this September.

Top Drawer is one of a series of trade shows that promote home and gift wholesalers. They include specialist shows such as the Toy Fair, as well as a number of shows abroad.

Alan Roper of Blue Diamond says he is a fan of Ambiente, which is held in Frankfurt, Germany (11 to 15 February 2011;

Fallen Fruits, meanwhile, has many areas covered. Its Secrets du Potager range, for example, focuses on grow-your-own products.

New for 2010 was the Disney collection of children's gardening accessories - everything from tools, wheelbarrows, welly-boots and gloves, birdcare and even a beautiful garden bench - all featuring the Mickey, Minnie or Winnie the Pooh images.

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