The garden season in 2016 was concertinaed into a six-week peak in May and early June, when sales took off following a long cold and wet early spring. Brexit's impact on garden retail has been slight so far, with July sales better than those in June, reflecting better weather as the summer holidays began, say industry representatives.
Garden Centre Association (GCA) member sales show a year-to-date increase of 3.85 per cent, but June's overall monthly sales were 1.47 per cent down on the same month last year. GCA chief executive Iain Wylie said 2016 has been an up-and-down year so far. "Like many other years 2016 has been a series of good and bad months," he added. "There have been some real high points and some disappointing periods where the weather has not held up."
Macro issues such as Brexit have not made much difference to garden retail consumers, he explained. Despite weatherproofing with clothes concession outlets, more catering and adding soft play areas, the weather is still leading garden centre sales. "In the simple microcosm of retail, I don't think bigger issues such as Brexit have had much effect. I'm sure there will be implications going forward, but in the short term, garden centre trade has been good when the weather has been good. Willingness to spend money in garden centres has reflected the inconsistencies of the weather."
But he added: "There have been some massive changes of late and I'm not sure where that will filter through to garden centres. Perhaps for Christmas and garden furniture buying for 2017, but from a retail perspective, deals have been done for this year."
Garden Industry Manufacturers Association chief executive Vicky Nuttall said: "People seem to have had a mixed season. The weather has been up and down, and sales have been up and down to reflect that. Overall, it's been not a bad year. But there is a level of uncertainty in the next few months and years following Brexit and how that will pan out with prices. That's a whole separate discussion that will come up around Glee time.
"Everyone is playing their cards close to their chests but there is an impact on prices because of exchange rates and the number of products being imported. People will have to pass that on. There's only so much a supplier can absorb. Retailers are demanding in terms of margin expectations and there's only so much suppliers can do to keep themselves profitable. If they have to absorb price increases it is going to affect profitability."
For garden centre development, recent activity has centred on cafe expansions, adding farm shops and play areas, and covering planterias with canopies, at locations such as Mappleborough Green Garden Centre near Redditch, Tong Garden Centre near Bradford and Frosts in Bedfordshire.
Wylie suggested that some expansions may have been on hold. "The effect may be people may reconsider until they see how things work out. It's as much about availability of money for investment and people's job security as anything else."
He was willing to accept that prices "might well go up", not least because of currency exchange rate changes meaning imports paid for in euros or dollars are around 10 per cent more expensive. National Living Wage hikes brought in on 1 April have also hit the retail and nursery sector disproportionately hard.
"Plants have done really well this year, but that's weather-related," he added. GCA statistics show outdoor plant sales were up 20 per cent in the peak May sales season compared to May 2015. But they were 17 per cent down in April, which had temperatures averaging 0.9 degsC lower than normal, according to the Met Office.
Retail analyst GfK said garden care sales reflected the see-saw season, with April seeing double-digit decline. May, the highest-value month, produced an increase in total garden care value of 14 per cent year-on-year. It saw 92 per cent of average rainfall and average temperatures up 0.9 degsC. But a wet June - Met Office statistics showed rainfall was 139 per cent of average - saw a decline of 7.6 per cent. The wet helped slug killer sales grow by 52.5 per cent in June year-on-year.
Fellow retail analyst Euromonitor found that UK gardening sales grew by three per cent in 2015, leading to value sales of £3.9bn. It pointed out that an improving housing market and increased disposable income are helping. Gardening is forecast to show a one per cent compound annual growth rate at constant 2015 prices over the period 2015-20, reaching sales of £4.2bn in 2020.
Catering is showing consistent growth (up 7-11 per cent every month this year) and other leisure items such as clothing have done particularly well on the barometer of trade (up 10-20 per cent each month in 2016 compared to the same month in 2015). Wylie added: "You can see the investment that has been made there in the last couple of years paying off both in takings and bringing people into garden centres to make other purchases."
One star performer has been houseplants. Wylie said people have realised they are "better value than a bunch of flowers", but recognised: "The product nowadays is seen as a fashion accessory and people use it as an item of home decor. A few years ago growers and retailers were in the mode of producing them as something to grow, but they're not. They're an accessory and growers have adapted to that change."
Despite the value of plants produced in the UK not increasing since 2011, according to latest Defra figures - at around £1.1bn with a similar amount imported - Wylie insisted: "Plants are as important as they have ever been, whatever people may say. People do want things more instantly and there are fewer hobby gardens around. There's more rental ownership but people will still want an outdoor environment."
He cited young plant producer Ball Colegrave, which recently featured on BBC2's Gardeners' World. Presenter Joe Swift interviewed Scott Rusch of Ball Colegrave's sister company Pan American Seed, encouraging people to use bedding in "contemporary" ways.
Rusch said durability is the most important attribute new plants need because people's expectations have increased as they expect plants to survive changes in weather including more flooding and drought. Rusch recommended plants such as calibrachoa, interspecific dianthus and impatiens alternatives such as Sunpatiens and Bounce. With "rows of lobelias and alyssums gone", Wylie added: "It's all about adapting to change."