The UK retail seed market had a shake-up this winter when Suttons Seeds commercial director David Robinson and operations director Rufus Roberts led a management buyout (MBO) of the Devon-based company. French owner Limagrain and Torbay Council’s economic development company facilitated and supported the MBO of Suttons Consumer Products, effective from 1 December 2014.
New managing director Robinson says: "Suttons have plans to launch innovative and new products, for both our faithful as well as new and budding customers, as we continue to focus both on direct and consumer markets."
The company will be launching further James Wong ranges in 2015, including a plants line. Robinson says there has been evolution over the past 12 months but it will not be until spring 2015 when the public sees the changes.
Mr Fothergill’s is now supplying Wyevale Garden Centres with seeds where it replaced Suttons. Joint managing director David Carey says stock going in at Wyevale’s 148 garden centres includes new green point-of-sale material, Sarah Raven Mr Fothergill’s vegetables, sweet peas, pot toppers, Get Growing and promotional stands for sunflowers.
Mr Fothergill's has also recently won business at Klondyke and Choice. Wyevale also now stocks Green Velvet lawn seeds.
Early sales of Mr Fothergill’s RSPB seeds were good, the company reports. "At the end of December 2014, the sell-in of collections was 108 per cent of target, and with top-up orders already being placed the sell through is equally encouraging," says product manager David Turner.
Displays include 16 single varieties, three Four-in-One collection packs and three Shaker Boxes of wild flower mixes. Each packet or box carries a silhouette icon to tell consumers whether the contents attract birds, pollinating insects, butterflies or a combination of all three.
Mr Fothergill’s brand Johnsons also reports its Designer Garden Collections — the new "border in a box" concept — have been very well received by the garden trade, beating their sell-in targets. Of the three collections, by mid December 2014 the Cottage Garden had reached 255 per cent, Wildlife-Attracting 199 per cent and Fragrant & Cut Flowers 193 per cent of initial targets set by Johnsons.
Meanwhile, Franchi Seeds of Italy has launched a new range of traditional vegetables grown by all sides during World War One and will be supporting modern-day veterans with every seed packet sold.
Another new Franchi range is inspired by plants in the Eden Project’s Mediterranean biome. The Cornwall botanical attraction’s Mediterranean Terrace restaurant is surrounded by plants grown from Franchi seeds.
Packets include Lavender ‘Vera’, Sunflower ‘Alto Giallo’, Basil ‘Classico Tigullio’, Lentils ‘Lenticchia’ and Tuscan Salad Mix. All packets cost £2.29 each. The company is anticipating that some 500,000 packets could be sold each year.
Kings Seeds has a new seed buyer in Andrew Tokely. He forecasts that 2015-16 will be the big year for the Essex-based company, which will double its flower range from 100 to 200 varieties. The organic vegetable range will also increase.
Tokely’s role has been to find "tried and tested" varieties, as well as some new ones, that he has got to know well over his years at his previous company, Thompson & Morgan.
The aim is to offer a range to match the "big boys", he says. "Hopefully with the changes in place we will have a range to compete with the Suttons and T&M’s of this world." He adds that because the Kings Seeds selling price tends to be lower, that will give garden centres an option to stock its seeds as an alternative to other brands.
"It’s not easy out there," Tokely admits. "The big boys are fighting to get the bigger accounts. Kings Seeds is slightly different, going to smaller outlets that are privately owned." He adds that this year has started strongly for the company on the mail-order side of its business.
Seed companies looking ahead to the future
Thompson & Morgan horticulture director Paul Hansord says new chief executive Bryan Magrath is "making the right decisions to move the business forward and give us direction".
Hansord adds that as the largest firm in marketplace the aim is to "hang on to that position" with improvements including taking customer service in-house and new IT systems.
Investment company Primary Capital owns a 52 per cent stake in T&M, having provided £17m in funding to support a management buyout of the business from International Garden Products Inc back in May 2002.
Does former Vision Express chief executive Magrath’s appointment hint at a sale? Hansord says:
"The sale will happen one day but you never know with private equity buyers. It’s got to be part of our planning. It’s been long investment for them now. Bryan is here for the long term. He has a good pedigree."
As lead supplier to Wyevale Garden Centres as well as to the likes of Dobbies and Hillier, Hansord points out that the company remains strong.
On margins, he adds: "There’s no question, all retailers want more. You can’t have no fat."
T&M has a new value "garden favourites" retail brand in 14 centres this year — Van Meuwen, previously a mail-order marquee. Hansord says there is "still a little movement towards flowers from vegetables".
Kings Seeds managing director Les Day says September 2015’s launch of its new flower range — its vegetable seeds will relaunch in September 2016 — means: "We are going to aim for the bigger groups." He adds: "We kept to our laurels, quality and service and try not to overprice."
But he admits: "Groups demand a larger percentage and sometimes the only way is to up the retail price."
Suttons Seeds managing director David Robinson says the seed company-retailer relationship needs to be addressed. "We need to make sure that we’re operating sensibly in retailers," he stresses.
"We’ve perhaps in past been a bit defensive in talks with retailers and we need to find new ways of working and ways of saving costs for both parties. We’re having the conversations that the industry has steered away from. All companies in this sector have been saying the same thing for years. When I talk to retailers, I find it’s an open door."
He adds that getting the customer base right and contracts profitable is the aim and the company is "this year looking for level sales on the direct side". New product in March 2015 will include James Wong plants and seed "for taste" as well as a "small spaces" seeds theme.
Westland Horticulture marketing director Keith Nicholson says its Unwins brand is ready to exploit a marketplace for seeds that seems to be on the up.
On margins: "The most important thing is getting the product at the right value for the customer to pay. Seeds are still exceptional value for money."
Lawn seed success story
The best new gardening product in the 2015 Garden Retail Awards is Gro-Sure Smart Lawn Seed from Westland Horticulture.
The firm’s technical team conceived the product after finding many consumers were confused by multiple lawn seed options and did not know which type to buy.
The challenge was to develop a premium lawn seed suitable for amateur gardeners that could deal with full sun, shade, patches and worn areas.
The "next generation" lawn seed launched in 2014 as the first of its kind in the market under the cross-category Gro-Sure brand and with the "Grow With Certainty" promise on all products.
Each high-performance lawn seed in the pack is coated in layers of "smart technology". They are Aqua Gel, a patented water-storing gel layer that can soak up 400 times its own weight in water and releases it gradually when the lawn seed needs it; and bird-resistant coating, a blue shell that makes the seed undesirable to birds.
Priced at £9.85 — £2.32 above the average — sales rocketed on launch. The product generated an additional £141,614 in sales in May 2014, topping the sales charts non-own-brand lawn seed.