Mixed blessings for garden centres at Christmas

The festive season has brought mixed blessings for garden centres, with some enjoying strong tree sales and others seeing trade hampered by competition from "bit players" and carparking limits.

Christmas trees: overall quality of trees is good (Pic: kfcatles/Flickr.com)
Christmas trees: overall quality of trees is good (Pic: kfcatles/Flickr.com)

Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker said sales at the Southend on Sea business were disappointing, but for its Tillington Group it was probably "satisfactory to OK".

He explained: "The most important impact has been the volume and sales of artificial trees: these go on show a month before real trees are even cut, so it's one box ticked off the Christmas list early."

Another factor was competition from bit players, some of whom probably didn’t even pay VAT, snapping up a pallet-load for £1,000 and selling from a garage forecourt earning a tenner a pop - "that's paid their Christmas".

A third problem was carpark size, said Bunker: "The big boys park 700 to 1,000 cars. We have 350 and while people will queue for hours to see Santa in his grotto, they won't to buy a tree.

"They'll get it from one of the many other retailers or the street-corner type of operator. We used to retail 5,000 trees but its now about 1,000."

However, it had been a good year for other Christmassy goods such as fairy lights, artificial trees and food, which was a "massive market": £7 Jars of pickled onions went down storm.

Ayletts' director Adam Wigglesworth said after a slow start sales of real trees had gone "much much better" in the past 10 days. Sales last weekend were 20% up on the same two-day slot last year.

"We sell a lot of trees, and smaller Christmas trees have never been popular with our customers," he said. "But I'm also selling fewer really big, 3m, trees than I have in the past."

Buckingham Garden Centre has enjoyed better sales across Christmas products this year than last, selling Noble and Nordmann firs and Blue Spruce trees.

"It's the first time we've sold Blue Spruce for some time so this was a bit of an experiment, but it went very very well," said horticulture publicity manager Chris Day.

"Overall quality of the trees is good thanks to favourable growing conditions across the continent and we are selling mostly 1.5m to 1.8m trees but have a few bigger ones for larger houses."

Day said sundries such as lights were also doing well thanks to improved technology such as LEDs, which was prompting people to upgrade.

"We are offering information such as the optimum number of lights to have on trees, which is not that forthcoming in garden centres, so we hope to demystify a few Christmas quandaries."

Garden Centre Association (GCA) chief executive Iain Wylie said: "It's too early to give a rounded overview, but a few members expressed concerns about price competition.

"There were also a few words spoken about the mild autumn and needle drop, but I think many people managed to scrape through and we eventually got the frosts we wanted."

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