Garden Centre Association January catering sales were up by 16.48 per cent, with food hall/farm shop sales up 16.04 per cent. Outdoor plant sales were down 9.19 per cent and this continued into February and March.
However, Coolings managing director Gary Carvosso said January and February plant sales were "through the roof" and its "best ever" thanks partly to special offers. But early March sales have been "shocking" compared to 2015, when temperatures reached 17 degsC. But Carvosso said he is "totally confident" that plant sales will come back quickly, adding: "We're stocking left, right and centre" and the current lack of sales is a "blip". He pointed out: "We remain confident in plant sales subject to a warmer end to March and lead into Easter."
An HTA study tour of Ireland last month heard that plants make up 10 per cent of turnover in some centres while cafes are running at 30-40 per cent of turnover. Carvosso said gardening has been pushed out by concessions at some centres and cafes remain "the darling" of the industry.
Coolings shop turnover in January/February was 19 per cent up, plants 20 per cent up and the cafe 15 per cent up on the same period last year. Some garden centre cafes are running at £11,000 turnover per cover, though the average is half that.
Consultant Neville Stein said a crowded market in Northern Ireland and wetter weather than England "make it a challenging retail landscape" and to compete in this retail environment catering has become a significant proportion of retailers' businesses. He said catering is 20-30 per cent of total sales but "while the plant category as a percentage of total sales is decreasing I don't see significant reductions in the total value of plant sales in cash terms. This seems to be holding up, it's just that as a category it becomes less important as a revenue stream compared to catering."
Planning consultant Malcolm Scott said 14,000 new restaurants opening in the UK over the past five years should not prevent garden centres from continuing to expand catering because most new restaurants are brands that "do not fit the garden centre model" and have a younger clientele, narrower range and are more fashion-sensitive.
Latest data from Barclaycard revealed that overall growth in February was predominantly driven by spending on experiences. Restaurants (up 13.8 per cent), pubs (12.8 per cent) and hotels (7.5 per cent) all saw increases in spending. Overall growth was 3.3 per cent.
Sophie Timmerman-Delves, co-owner of Garden Retail & Garden Industry Awards catering category winner Timmermans (see p43), said: "Catering is up by 26 per cent year to date and accounting for 39 per cent of overall sales. The restaurant has been busy even before we won the award and even on miserable wet days like today when there is not a single table left available."
Restaurant turnover at award finalist Highfield Garden World works out at 24 per cent of the overall total after its redevelopment. Previous winner Glendoick Garden Centre has increased restaurant turnover 240 per cent over 10 years. Previously, the cafe accounted for 20 per cent of turnover. Now it is 44 per cent and the most profitable part of the business.
Glendoick director Ken Cox said the area is more nuanced than simply catering carrying the rest of garden centre trade. "For some garden centres with a good location and a really slick catering operation the catering is the major profit centre," he added. "Glendoick is on the main road between Scotland's four largest cities, so a good location for catering. Other centres in rural locations with little passing trade may not be as fortunate.
"Some garden centres still say that their catering is losing money and is just an add-on service. Many garden centres have over-complex uncosted menus and lose money trying to be over-sophisticated. Some of them could halve the size of the menu and double their profits. There are plenty of models to copy/emulate. The Sunday roast, hotplate kind of catering is past its sell-by date.
"All garden centres are trying to season-proof and weatherproof our businesses so that we can trade profitably 12 months of the year and whatever the retail climate is. A few centres like the excellent Cowell's Garden Centre still sell plants above all and almost everything else is ancillary. But most of us are now small department stores and everything that that entails."
Squire's said the first week of March was a "disappointing week" with garden centres 10 per cent down, including all gardening, plant and outdoor categories. Cafes, however, were well up - 12 per cent ahead of 2015.
Longacres' Mike Ainley said: "Mother's Day was good. Flowers were up at all three stores. Gardening not so much, but obviously Mother's Day was very early and not many people want to be out in 6 degsC." Scotsdales' figures showed cafe sales up 14 per cent last week - approximately 15 per cent of sales for the week. Dobbies cafe sales reportedly hit 40 per cent of turnover in the past month.
A Dobbies representative said: "Our restaurants have performed well in the last half-year, having a particularly successful Christmas period. 2016 also got off to a good start with our January offers being warmly welcomed by our customers."