Getting a foot in the garden retail door

Is getting a new garden product into the multiples becoming tougher? Matthew Appleby investigates.

Innovation in garden retailing helps to keep the market attractive. The industry has itself been innovative in creating new paths to market in an effort to combat wary buying by retailers.

But one small businessman, who did not want to be named, hit out at the big boys after reading in HW (14 April) that managing directors at chains such as Kingfisher, Travis Perkins and Homebase are feeling cautious about sales in the gardening season.

Kingfisher chief executive Ian Cheshire said his business, which owns B&Q, is being "very cautious" because people are "not spending on gardens". Travis Perkins chief executive Geoff Cooper adds: "Forecasting is even more difficult now than it was in 2009, with the prospect of an election which is getting ever harder to call." Homebase MD Paul Loft agrees that the market is difficult to judge.

This has led to frustration from the supplier. He says: "After 20 months of attempting to break into the market with a simple low-cost DIY/gardening tool, the latest comments from these 'multiples' are unbelievable.

"Even with the help of major paving manufacturers in some instances, all but B&Q have simply not responded, despite numerous attempts. Garden centres are no different either. Approaching a buyer for landscape products and standing near a huge display of paving, I began to pitch my product, perfect for encouraging paving sales, to which he replied: 'We don't sell a lot of paving so we're not interested.'"

But Garden Industry Manufacturers Association (GIMA) director Neil Gow believes his members are being successful in getting their products into multiples and cites Scotts' Patch Magic as an example. He advises that GIMA product digest, awards and business meeting networking could help manufacturers.

In recent times, speakers from B&Q, Garden Centre Group and Tesco have revealed to GIMA suppliers what they want from them. For instance, Tesco hardware category director Peter Groves, from "the biggest, baddest multiple of them all", advised members to contact him directly at a GIMA meeting.

"A couple of people who did that after the business meeting were listed at Tesco six weeks later. It's down to understanding the marketplace," says Gow.

On hard landscaping products, Gow says the capital investment in space and the product margins are not attractive enough to make them "integral" to many garden centres.

"Garden centres are a business not a charity," he explains. "They have to cope with increasing costs like all business in the supply chain. They have to look at margins and what they are making."

The frustrated supplier says: "Garden centres will not give the time of day. They are more focused on candles, flapjacks and Christmas decorations. Bigger well-known brands that have distribution set up own multiple products and garden centres prefer to order from a catalogue of many products. Few item-range companies like ours can get in.

"We have a system in place whereby innovation and new products are talked up, but in fact it is the new products of existing companies that seem to find a place on the shelves, not the newbies."

Gow says: "It's a hard commercial world. Garden centres can be no different - they have been in the past and I've been critical of them."

Leisure and Outdoor Furniture Association chairman and Solex outdoor furniture show organiser Richard Plowman is more sympathetic. "It is difficult to see major buyers," he concedes. "I recommend using shows and exhibitions.

"The big buyers do come and look for new ideas. But the difficulty you have is trying to see a buyer, particularly if you have no pedigree. The DIY market has been through difficult times. They are less prepared to take risks now."

GLEE INNOVATORS ZONE

At garden product trade show Glee (20-22 September), the Glee Innovators Zone aimed to nurture grass-roots product development. It also helped start-up businesses and first-time innovators take their first steps into the market and meet buyers from Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Harrods, Homebase and garden centres.

Nicky Stanley, the innovator behind the Pick-Up-A-Patio system, says: "Throughout all three days we had the opportunity to chat with a wide range of buyers and as such have a wealth of ideas that we'll be taking back to the drawing board to ensure that our product is ticking all the right boxes."

Andrew Lennard, director of rainwater harvesting company Halstead Rain, adds: "It is essential to think about how you want to maximise the brand building opportunity that is available as an exhibitor at such a sizeable event.

"Consider what branding and messaging you want on-stand, plus think about what you can do on-stand to draw the attention of more visitors and be prepared for some questions you would never expect."

RESPONDING TO NEW IDEAS

Haskins Garden Centres buying director Philip Evason says things are not easy for suppliers and points out that space is at a premium in garden centres.

But he aims to respond to all approaches from innovators, adding: "The next letter or product coming through the door could be the big one. You have to keep an open mind."

He continues: "Garden centres have to be careful going forward. If they keep increasing their SKU (stock-keeping unit) count that is not as good a commercial approach to take."

Evason explains that his buyers trawl the shows for innovative products and look forward to receiving photographs and samples from their suppliers.

According to Evason, questions that the buyers ask include:

- Is it going to fit in the overall buying strategy?

- What will it retail at?

- What is the likely sales volume?

- Will stocking it mean removing another product?

- How genuinely innovative is it?

- Where will it sit in the centre?


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