Although overall sales figures in the planteria, which accounts for 20 per cent of overall sales/turnover, may look roughly similar year on year, plants that are being sold to make up those figures, and the way those products are being sourced, are showing significant change.
Restaurant accounts for 24 per cent, and sundries, outdoor and indoor leisure, pet, gift, fashion and farm shop areas 56 per cent of the total £7.25m turnover.
Planteria manager Jon Mason said: "There has been a real shift in what the customer wants and buys. It used to be about planting plans and taking the long term view. Now a growing proportion of customers want take-away or pop-up gardening. They want something that looks good today – something they can transfer straight from the garden centre to the back garden for instant impact.
"Flexing our offering to fit that demand is paying off for us, but to us trained horticulturalists it can go against the grain a bit to take such a short-term view of planting."
He added: "Many of today’s customers don’t want mess and don’t have much gardening knowledge, but they do want a nice looking outside space and they do have the money to buy it. They don’t want to spend time working on the garden but they do have the time to drive to a garden centre and go shopping. To fail to embrace that mindset would be perilous for any garden centre.
"Products like planted pots and baskets are a perfect case in point. Does anybody make their own hanging baskets these days? To a certain extent, why would you? These days we sell colour-co-ordinated off-the-shelf planted baskets by the shed load come May and June, retailing from around £15. For the customer £15 isn’t going to break the bank, it means no mess, guaranteed good looks and two minutes to take it out of the car boot and put it into position. Bingo!"
Another trend which has emerged with changing consumer shopping habits at Highfield is the rise in demand for big impact, big price tag items.
Mason said: "For many customers the old rules simply don’t apply. Forget planting in threes and planning your borders. In fact, forget the borders totally in many instances. But where sales of shrubs, perennials and annuals may have shrunk, sales of plants like an £800 potted acer have soared. We now source and sell a range of Italian specimen plants featuring high impact olives, bays and the like potted in large, attractive pots and delivered straight to the customer’s door. It’s proving a real winner for us, and the people buying these one-offs are as likely to be someone buying for their own garden as a landscape gardener buying for a customer."Mason explained how Highfield is changing the way it presents and purchases its plant products: "Where once plants were organised A-Z, now we carefully rotate and present plants for maximum immediate visual impact. During the spring and summer months, what goes at the front is whatever’s looking the most beautiful and colourful that day. Reflecting consumer trends, we also need to source differently – something which suppliers have also learnt. We undertake much less pre-season buying now – waiting instead for ‘looking good lists’ to select plants which are then delivered a week or so later."
While many consumers want pop-up gardening, the more experienced gardener looking at longer term results still represents a significant sales opportunity.
Mason said: "It’s still important to offer something for everyone, and to have the product range and the staff resource there to cope with whatever type of customer walks through the door. For some that means explaining what a petunia looks like, and for another it’s about talking in-depth about selecting the correct varieties of fruit for cross-pollination. It also helps to be aware of the impact of the media. Some planned purchase customers come in clutching printouts or showing pictures on their ’phone of a specific plant (Latin name and all) which a journalist has recommended for a dark corner with a damp patch."