Two large importers of continental stock reported brisk business at recent open days, rebutting the belief that the continued weakness of the pound is making imported stock uncompetitive.
Hertfordshire-based Europlants, the UK agent for Italian nursery Vannucci Piante, reported 650 visits over its two days, up from a "normal" tally of 500. "We were overawed by the response," says retail sales person Mark Smith. "We sold 350 trolleys over the two days - the positive feedback is really overwhelming."
While larger stock has yet to recover from the decline seen across the industry last year, smaller sizes offer more scope, he says. "Retailers are still selling big plants though not as many as they were. But they are selling masses of 10-15 litres. There is a massive potential market there, though people aren't doing as much as they could. They have bed ends where they could put in something at £44.99 and they don't do it even though those plants sell very well."
On the exchange rate, he says: "Our cost price has gone up by 20 per cent, but we have worked on lower margins to try and make up for it. We have tried to encourage people to spend more by offering bigger discounts. If you spend more than £5,000 you get an extra five per cent discount."
Owner Renato Canale explains: "Price is not everything. I wouldn't say imported plants are expensive now, just a realistic price, which is almost a bit of a shock. We do special prices at our open days but what we aim to do is give good-quality product. If you try and buy business you won't last very long - there is only so much you can discount.
"We had a lot of big clients from the garden centre world here that we didn't have last spring, and this year we are selling many smaller size plants that in the past we used to neglect - three-, fiveand seven-litre plants that people don't think of when they think of Italian stock. But now they realise there are things that are just as good and probably better value from Italy."
Neither are prospects on the landscaping side as bleak as some people imagine, he says. "Even if people in the past 25 months say they have stopped, there is still a lot of business there at a certain level of the market, which is where most of our clients work. If anything we are improving on the landscaping side because we have specialist staff to handle certain markets. Our strength is working across many sectors, protecting ourselves by spreading risk."
He adds that the upcoming Olympics in nearby Stratford will generate "a tremendous amount of work". But the company has not been unaffected by the deep and long winter. "Things were tough in the first two months because of the weather," he reports. "Last autumn we could see trade coming back in all different sectors of the industry - from September to early December was very good for us, until the bad weather - and in Italy, Vannucci had a lot of plant damage this winter. They had some dramatic temperature drops."
Classiflora also reported a buoyant level of interest at its open days at its 3ha purpose-built nursery near Waltham Abbey, with more than 450 garden retailers visiting during the two days last month. "Sales of some of the big plants have declined, but the small stuff has gone up," says business development manager Andrew Dayes. "There are price points we have to hit. For the mass market, plants have to be £59.99 or under, and we have to meet that."
Classiflora is sole importer for Zelari, another Tuscan nursery, which grows more than a million plants a year. "We now also have exclusive rights for a further eight nurseries in Spain," Dayes explains, adding that a permanent Mediterranean showroom housed under glass allows such stock to be shown at its best year-round. The company aims to make purchasing easier with a range of options. Its "Fly and Buy" deals allow customers to visit the Zelari nursery in person and it will ship back orders of over £4,000.
"We have clients in and out every day," says Dayes. "You can reserve stock and there's a sample house with selections if you don't want to go round all 150ha. We will then look after it and you can bring it over in manageable amounts." The company runs its own lorry fleet, charging £50 for shipments under £500, otherwise shipping is free. The company also runs monthly "show vans", from which customers can buy directly.
- Additional reporting by Jack Sidders
The harsh winter has led to a general shortage of stock across Europe, says German tree grower Heinje Nurseries' UK sales representative Ian Sadler. "A lot of smaller nurseries didn't have the facilities to protect their crops. Northern Italy was particularly hard-hit - there are bay tree nurseries that have no saleable stock. That will hit the exporters, though it takes time to feed through."
Evergreens can take a while to die and many nurserymen will be holding back stock right now just in case, he adds. "A lot of garden retail sales in recent years have built on the Mediterranean trend, but you can't expect all those plants to survive the winter we've just had. Driving around, I've seen a lot of losses in people's gardens - more so, I noticed, in Southampton than inland in Worcestershire."
This may lead to more sober attitudes to planting in future, he suggests. "In northern Germany, where Heinje is based, they get a bad winter every six to eight years. You don't see things like Cordyline and Phormium there - people know that sooner or later they will cop it.
"I remember the last bad winter here, in 1992. Those sort of plants wouldn't sell for three years after that. Now, will people spend £20 if they worry it might die?" He adds that a Conservative victory in the general election would be a boost for plant importers. "The pound is likely to strengthen if the Tories get in, though not if Labour holds on."
In the meantime, he says: "Customers have understood the change in prices and are looking for crops that are still good value for money. We have four-litre Spiraea and Weigela that look heavier than the equivalent UK-grown plant - they're more like a five-litre. Yet they will retail at £9.99, compared with £7.99 or even £9.99 for a three-litre plant grown in Britain."
He says of the year so far: "We are up on 2009, though that wouldn't be difficult. Sales plummeted with the weakness of the pound, though picked up with the good spring we had. Our regular customers are back to 2008 levels, though they may only order a couple of trolleys at a time. That way you have fresh stock, though they may not still be there when you reorder."
Lines to look out for
Sciadopitys verticillata, the Japanese umbrella pine, is a "living fossil", the sole member of its family and endemic to Japan. According to Sadler: "It's a bit like a monkey puzzle and quite expensive, but it is eye-catching enough to still sell on the nursery before people look at the label."
Malus sargentii 'Tina' is a dwarf, almost bonsai, crab apple with a mass of creamy blossom in season. "We sell them as five-litre and seven-litre mini-standards," says Sadler. "With two or three decent weekends, you will sell out your stock," he maintains.