Does online switch for fruit trees signal a shift in garden retail buying habits?

Fruit tree grower Blackmoor Nurseries in Hampshire is halving production to concentrate on an online-only market.

RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant of the year Morus Charlotte Russe - image: HTA
RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant of the year Morus Charlotte Russe - image: HTA

Nursery manager Jon Munday says that as from July 2017 Blackmoor will no longer be a supplier of fruit trees and soft-fruit plants to the garden centre sector. This will mean cutting tree production from 40,000-50,000 a year to 20,000-25,000 and soft-fruit plants from 250,000 to 80,000-100,000, and selling them at retail prices online rather than at low margin to retailers.

"In recent years there has been a decline in garden centre sales and an increase in online retail sales through our own website,," Munday explains. "We are now going to be concentrating on building our online brand for retail customers only."

After a decade selling online, a couple of years ago the nursery decided that selling higher-margin direct-to-the-public fruit trees would make a better business than splitting work between online and wholesale. Munday says wholesale sales had fallen to 30% of overall sales and the energy going into that side was no longer paying off.

The reasons for the shift are changes in buying patterns — gardeners no longer buy fruit trees at the traditional autumn and winter planting times, so garden centres no longer stock them then. This vicious circle has led to decreased sales from garden centres. However, Blackmoor has seen online sales grow to 70% of the business, with bare-root fruit trees being able to be sent out to customers cheaper than they can buy a container product from the garden centre.

Munday says as a specialist fruit nursery it was only 10 years ago that the majority of sales came from garden centres. No garden centres can stock the full range, but he believes they were increasingly stocking his product only in the spring, which is not the ideal time to plant.

He also believes that gardeners now simply Google a plant if they want to buy it and especially with a bulky item like a fruit tree, for an £8 delivery via Tuffnells or DPD, they can have the product the next day rather than visiting perhaps more than one garden centre and having to lift the product into the boot of the car and drive home.

Munday says the grow your own trend peaked three or four years ago but adds that there is still a big demand for fruit trees and plants. It is just that retail sales have fallen, though he believes discounters such as pound shops and supermarkets such as Tesco may have taken some trade.

Fruit trends:

  • In: mulberries, medlars, quinces and loquats
  • Out: goji berries

Blackmoor intends to spend more time promoting its brand at shows such as RHS events in the future. Munday says a feature in a garden magazine on a fruit such as the cherry always lifts sales. Trends such as superfood goji berries come and go, with the goji now completely out of fashion, but he says unusual fruits such as mulberries, medlars, quinces and loquats are doing well.

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant of the year was Morus Charlotte Russe, while the HTA National Plant Show winner was the compact Malus sieboldii Aros from Frank P Matthews, showing that new breeding is helping the sector to innovate.

Munday says Frank P Matthews, James McIntyre/Moyness Nurseries and New Place Nurseries, which has increased production now that it is part of the Newey Group, will take up the slack.

But old favourites such as Victoria plums, conference pears and Falstaff and Sunset apples remain the top-sellers, showing that despite new ways of buying, gardeners remain reassuringly traditional in their tastes.

Nursery consultant Will George, who has Blackmoor among his discussion group, says Blackmoor has been "brave" and "done the best thing for them", adding: "The way the garden centre market is going, they have been sensible. Supplying garden centres is incredibly hard."

Buyers can change their minds and trees are slightly less popular with smaller gardens, but the online market is taking off, says George. Garden centres have become "stereotyped" with a lack of plant choice as consolidation continues and planterias shrink, he adds. Serving niche markets, by which George includes the internet and mail order, is a way forward.

Nursery consultant Neville Stein says: "Specialist wholesale nurseries are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their stock into the UK garden centre market. The buying pattern amongst the public seems to have changed with fewer people engaging in serious gardening such as growing your own fruit — fruit is a difficult impulse purchase on a garden centre and as a category it is often confined to the outer reaches of the planteria, making it difficult for the casual garden centre visitor to be engaged with the product.

"Of course there will always be a market for fruit trees amongst the serious gardeners. These people are probably not even thinking about visiting a garden centre to buy these types of plants. They will be either visiting a specialist nursery directly or, as is more common, buying online." 

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