I'm not usually among the new year prognosticators - mostly because I leave that to all the talking heads who seem to thrive on predicting what's going to happen. Mostly I enjoy their red-faced embarrassment when they have to own up to getting it wrong.
This year, however, I have been asked to predict what the economy has to say to the garden retail industry. More than that, I get to talk about what you can do to offset the worst and create the best. Because, if you get it right, not only will you make it through the downturn, you will be in better shape than ever.
First the bad news
Let's start with the economy. It is getting worse. No matter whether the Government establishes a plan A+, B or Z, for consumers money will get tighter. And while your industry prides itself on being a haven for paying customers during downturns, even an afford- able activity - such as gardening - will soon be seen by many as more of a luxury than a respite.
On top of that, the competition for customers' attention - and money - is going to be fiercer. Whatever your proposition, you can count on the fact that it is no longer enough.
Not for a buying public that is being bombarded with what you have to offer in your convivial setting either online or at a more convenient location. Possibly, even at a better price.
And, as has been occurring for the past few years, there is a consolidation in the market with more bigger players than ever before. Even as well-funded a chain as Dobbies cannot be comfortable with what Bents is planning or the idea of John Lewis coming into the game.
Okay, so now the question is - what are you going to do to beat the trend?
Play the long game
The single biggest mistake you can make in this environment is to be wholly reactive. You need to be responsive to what your customers want and what the market demands. But that is different from being reactive because when you are reactive, someone or something else is in control.
Instead, know from the start - and keep reminding yourself and your employees - that you are in this for the long haul. That the decisions you take need to be in the context of building your centre's future - not just reacting to what Tesco is doing with its bedding plants this week or how early your nearest competitor sets up their Easter displays.
Have a strategy. Know your market. Be aware of the immediate costs of action as well as the price you pay for bad decisions. Then make your decision. That way, whether you are dealing with customers or suppliers, you are getting and giving the best deal.
Attract a new generation of customers
The recent HTA report Engaging Younger Gardeners talked about attracting the under-45s to the industry. That is all well and good, except that from a market perspective 45 - or close to it - is old and limited in its view.
Now that you are playing a long game, you want to get your customers in as young and as often as possible.
That means expanding your definition of "gardening" to serve a world that does not own a home, has very little money to spend and is looking for a different combin- ation of ease, value and personal satisfaction.
Food prices are getting higher, which means that grow your own is all the more viable. Especially in containers and particularly for young families just starting out.
This is what Woodcote Green Garden Centre did to warrant this year's Garden Retail Award for Community Involvement, using schools and kids to hook more than 70,000 adults' attention in gardening in general and their centre in particular.
If you want the parents and grandparents, target the kids. You will end up with customers from all three generations.
Living in the ether
However comprehensive your online strategy is, it is not enough.
In a world where online coupons, social media and one-click sales define who wins and who loses, you cannot afford not to use what is, ultimately, a cheap resource to bring in the cash.
You want to drive new sales and increase sales per customer. The internet will do a better job for you than almost any other marketing strategy.
Best yet, give your customers an additional online coupon for a free cup of coffee when they come in and you can be sure that they will be there - online and onsite - ready to buy.
STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS - TOP TIPS
1. Be responsive to what your customers want but don't be reactive to every change - you are in control.
2. Know your market and be aware of the costs of action before making decisions.
3. Expand your definition of gardening to attract customers as young and as often as possible.
4. The internet will do a better job for your company than almost any other marketing strategy.