Forget Brexit and focus hard on customer service and being "sales ready", retail experts are advising as the garden industry eyes a revived marketplace. Sales rocketed last weekend (11-12 March) thanks to fine weather and garden retailers are making sure that all their staff are on the shop floor selling to take full advantage.
Hilliview Group managing director Boyd Douglas-Davies says making sure that displays are finished to free staff to talk to customers is a focus. "At our centres we're making sure that everything is on the shop floor and there's no work to be done so we can focus 100% on selling. It's got to be about customer service. If you don't give good service, you're going to miss out."
He says his 11-centre group has had a "great" couple of weeks, with "spring in the air" and garden furniture and plants selling "by the trolley-load". Customers are buying so much they are booking deliveries because they cannot fit what they have bought into their cars.
Douglas-Davies adds that the date of charity fundraiser Garden Re-Leaf Day (17 March) "landed right" to kick off the season as footfall and temperatures rise, as it was always meant to when he founded the annual event in 2012. Around 130 garden centres will be involved this year, with Douglas-Davies expecting to match the £140,000 raised in 2016.
He says that the season never got going in 2012 and 2013 because of poor weather. In 2016 a dull spring also held back sales, with Garden Centre Association (GCA) figures showing outdoor plants down 17.47% in April 2016. But a colder winter in 2016-17 that killed off winter bedding has been replaced by sunshine this March.
There has also been some pent-up demand after the season paused because of Storm Doris on 23 February, he adds. "The weather is certainly favourable at the moment. It's exactly what we need." He notes that there will be no elections, referendums or big sporting events this spring to "distract" customers.
Hillview has invested heavily in stores, including in soft play, restaurants and plant benching. Many other independents have also spent on revamps over the past year, which has seen big changes in the leadership of the largest garden retailers.
Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker says it is time to put away Brexit worries and concentrate on making the most of good early-season weather, which saw an 85.1% increase on sales for the same weekend last year in his Essex garden centre planteria last weekend.
Bunker adds that at the recent Horticulture Week Garden Retail Summit "where I was somewhat dismissive of the Brexit effect and while I fully understand there are interesting times ahead, this weekend the sun shone and the planteria was 85% up on 2016". He attributes the uplift to "no other factor" than the weather. "It was not Mother's Day, it was not a bank holiday - just the good old weather factor. Mothering Sunday is on 26 March while Easter Sunday falls on 16 April.
Bunker adds: "People are sharpening their game. But good independents are staying ahead. There's no reason why it shouldn't be a good year." He says a colder winter has killed off bedding and after Storm Doris delayed early sales there is sudden demand from keen, high-spending gardeners this month. They will spend 50% more than peak-season once-a-year visitors, with three-quarters of customers "coming to buy plants, not to buy crisps".
Reset the clock
GCA chief executive Iain Wylie says there is "no reason why garden centres can't reset the clock at 2011 levels", but he warns that "one swallow does not make a spring". Early-season strong sales are "great news and long may it continue", he adds, and garden centre staff will have been "energised" by the strong start. Wylie points out that the garden offers a good "feel-good" diversion as Brexit worries and further US presidency news cause worldwide ructions.
Dobbies has recently appointed renowned garden centre operator Nicholas Marshall to lead the business, which experts say will lead to a greater emphasis on core gardening. The 34-centre group is investing in store makeovers, as is Homebase, which is rebranding as Bunnings with £500m of investment.
UK & Ireland managing director PJ Davis told an investors conference this week that "dark months" stocking of outdoor living has been a success. Davis, who also revealed a plan for a transactional website within 18 months, added: "I don't pretend for one moment that outdoor living is as significant in the UK as in Australia but we have had more success with barbecue and garden furniture than we originally expected." Davis said he is "very pleased" with returns at the first UK Bunnings, which opened on 2 February as part of an initial rollout of 10 transformations this year. Bringing in the Australian service culture and higher staffing levels to replace "low service intensity" is a work in progress, he explained.
B&Q and Wyevale are also undergoing transformations, while independent garden centres have upped their game, possibly in response to the bigger players' investments. Wylie is anticipating a positive March for GCA members and adds that DIYs such as Bunnings upping their game has a drip-down effect to garden centres.
He says garden centres need to work with suppliers to make sure that they have the right product for sale while the weather is good, but warns that could be difficult in some cases if growers have cut supply after poorer seasons.
Ovation business consultancy managing director Neville Stein (see p27) advises: "Get everyone on the shop floor selling. Go fishing when the fish are biting. If people are in a spending mood, make sure you are stocked up. We don't know what's going to happen with Brexit but one thing we can focus on is getting our businesses better."
Comment - Be ready for business
Andy Newman of consultancy mdj2 says: "A late Easter is usually good for the industry because people have got in the garden. Good-weather March weekends mean people start a phase one garden tidy-up and phase two is making it pretty.
"Nice weekends in March get them in the mood but it's too early to call - there could still be snow at Easter. Garden centres I have seen are already in their 'spring clothes' and are ready for business when the sun shines.
"DIYs are in pretty good shape, though I've not seen any doing anything different. Garden centres are able to react more swiftly to weather patterns - big chains are not. B&Q and Bunnings set a plan and run with it. Garden centres, if they have a great weekend, ask for more stock please. They have more agility than big sheds."
- Meanwhile, Bunnings UK and Ireland chief executive PJ Davis says it must be ready for "micro seasons" that are new to the Australian company. Former B&Q operations managing director Matt Tyson, who sits on the Bunnings advisory board, is helping him to recognise such seasons. "We have got to be more flexible," adds Davis.