Garden Centre Association figures show the sundries category, which includes growing media, was 2.19 per cent down in 2015 compared to 2014, with the overall garden centre market up six per cent, indicating a slightly disappointing year for the sector.
Other challenges for the sector in 2015 included big changes to the supply base as Westland bought Sinclair out of administration.
Growing Media Association chairman Steve Harper says growing media prices may rise for 2016 while retailers may rethink suppliers. Allied to that, harvests were the poorest since 2012, when the amount of peat dug went as low as 37 per cent of what was expected.
However, despite the changes, "everyone seems to have had a reasonable year," says Harper. "No one has any concerns about raw materials. The harvest is slightly below average but given two good years everyone has plenty of peat. Stocks are where they should be."
Regarding Westland's Sinclair takeover, he says: "I'm sure some retailers will look at it and review what they're doing. Most manufacturers are telling me it creates an opportunity." On prices, he adds: "Sinclair was the most competitive player in the market so them coming out might mean overall prices change a little bit, but we won't see that until next year."
Wyevale Garden Centres has "probably the largest contract in the market", says Harper. The contract is believed to have moved from Sinclair to Scotts.
Wyevale will introduce an own-label compost from Bord na Mona this year. Bord na Mona has a similar contract with B&Q.
"Own-brand goes in cycles," says Harper. "What a lot of retailers don't understand is own-brand is hard to manage because you have the responsibility for the stock and packaging. It's good for big multiples but some small retailers find it hard to manage. If they stock branded they expect it to be delivered, but for B&Q and Homebase it is second nature to work with own-label.
"Manufacturers have to have the expectation you're going to commit to a certain amount of stock and that volume is too high for a lot of retailers. For most, particularly independents, it is probably something they won't need to do."
Green waste out
After taking over Sinclair, Westland announced that it was dropping green waste as an ingredient and will be using wood fibre instead. Few in the industry are mourning the loss of green waste. Bord na Mona says its formulations have been the same for several years, while Clover is among those who say they have never used green waste and insist peat remains the most stable and consistent ingredient, notwithstanding the slow progress towards the industry going peat-free.
Clover national sales manager Andrew Mather says his order book is good, with new customers coming on board while existing customers have placed orders "with a reasonable amount of confidence". The 2015 peat harvest was "OK - not a bumper harvest but enough to supply what we need to".
He encourages people to take product early because moisture content increases through winter, inflating transportation costs. Prices remain stable and any increased transport costs will probably have to be absorbed, he adds.
Clover has its own peat resources and most of its product is 100 per cent peat. Mather says: "We don't seem to see a wavering in demand. In some respects people have tried green waste and it hasn't always worked as well as it should, and now they're changing back.
"With seeds seeing 80 per cent losses (in some composts), you are going to buy something you know is going to do the job. Legislation we're monitoring but it really isn't something that alarms us greatly at the moment."
Bord na Mona national sales manager Jason Pike says 2016 looks "very, very promising", though it is "ultimately down to the weather. If we have an early season it will be fantastic, considering the growth we've put on in 2015. Prices are "consistent" and the harvest "reached where we need to reach".
On peat quotient, he says "most people are still not much concerned with what's in the bag as long as it works". Growise has been the same for a number of years. "A lot of things need to iron themselves out with the demise of Sinclair. There's a lot of repositioning to be done, but we're not going to complain."
Research compiled for Defra by Paul Waller Consulting from 26 manufacturers or suppliers found:
- Retail peat use in 2014: 1,391,865cu m, up from 1,267,522cu m in 2013.
- Alternatives in garden centres in 2014: 1,329,767cu m, up from 1,287,340cu m.
- Overall retail use: up from 3,592,202cu m to 3,823,439cu m.
- UK-sourced growing media: 849,303cu m. Republic of Ireland: 1,092,317cu m. Northern Europe: 168,237cu m.