This year has been hailed as the most difficult in half a century, and certainly 2012 has caused huge consternation to all garden retailers. But the ever-optimistic seed companies are now looking ahead to a much brighter future in 2013.
There are no dedicated sales figures for seeds - they are mixed in with bulbs, so blurring the numbers. However, we do know that by the end of July, well past the traditional seed-selling season, the combined sales figure for seeds and bulbs UK-wide was down 6.75 per cent year on year, according to the Garden Centre Association.
This figure is more than borne out by Suffolk-based Mr Fothergill's, which has seen a 10 per cent drop in retail seed sales in 2012. So what can retailers and the seed companies themselves do to turn things around?
1. Promote seeds as cheap
When Suttons Seeds undertook research last spring, the company found that one of the most attractive influencers to purchasing seed is value for money. Suttons retail marketing manager Michelle Roberts says: "The thrill of growing something from nothing has a huge resonance with the hobby gardener."
But are consumers necessarily looking for the cheap and easy fixes? "I don't think so, but it's becoming more apparent that value for money is key in the purchasing decision," adds Roberts.
If your customer base is looking to save money, look to stock the cheaper ranges. For example, the Carters brand from Suttons is available through retail outlets such as PoundStretcher, Garden Centre Group and one-off garden centres. Similarly, there is the Country Value brand from Mr Fothergill's that for 2013 has increased its range of flower and vegetable seed varieties to 149.
2. Target beginner gardeners
This year, Suttons' Beginner Gardeners seed collection won top prize at the Garden Industry Manufacturers Association Awards. Aimed at someone who is dreaming about starting their first garden, this is a collection of "easy-to-grow" seeds - including leaf salad, radish, leek, carrot, salad onion and dwarf French bean - with a folding ruler with holes in the appropriate spaces for sowing each variety and a calibrated dibber. There is also a Beginner Guide leaflet.
Roberts says: "This idea was driven by consumer demand gleaned from our research. It was found that novice and beginner gardeners still require more information in an easy-to-understand format to get them started and enthused - such as: 'I want to grow things, but I really don't know where to start.' We need to build their confidence through early success."
Next year, Mr Fothergill's is also bringing out its Get Growing beginners' range of 56 varieties of vegetable seeds.
3. Get information across
Roberts says: "During our research it was also found that garden centres are the most popular place when researching and looking for more information on growing. With this in mind, we have now created a series of growing guides to help the consumer create their perfect garden - from windowsill and square metre gardening to growing a beautiful cut flower garden or prolific grafted vegetable plants."
For most consumers, the decision to purchase is made when at the seed stand and it is heavily influenced by point-of-sale material and packaging. Mr Fothergill's marketing manager Ian Cross says: "Seed is a visual sale. The biggest influence on purchase is the picture on the packet. That's what people are buying - the promise of what is shown on the packet. That's true even of experienced gardeners buying established varieties."
4. Good in-store visibility
Cross adds: "Seeds will sell best if they are kept in a clear, well-lit and prominent position, and they definitely sell best where the shopper can get a good look at the whole stand. Seeds are an attractive and profitable proposition on the shop floor so deserve to be standing in the hot spots."
Keep space around the seed racks for customers to browse. If you do not provide that space, they will not linger and, ultimately, they will not buy. A traditional place for seeds is close to the tills - rather like confectionery, seeds can be impulse items.
5. Celebrity endorsement
Most retailers stocking Thompson & Morgan's products could also have pictures of Alan Titchmarsh appearing all over the racks. T&M currently has the license for the Titchmarsh seed and mail-order young plant ranges.
Other celebrities to the fore in seed ranges next year include Sarah Raven for the Butterflies & Bees and Cut Flowers ranges from Johnsons Seeds as well as the James Wong range of unusual seeds available from Suttons.
T&M also distributes branded seeds to the Duchy Originals organics range and Suttons distributes licensed branded seeds for Cornwall's Eden Project. Garden centres with links to celebrities or other dignitaries might consider using them to promote certain items.
6. Promote new ranges and themes
Suttons Seeds sales director David Arnold says: "Every year, companies like Suttons launch new varieties and come up with promotional ideas for our retail customers. We produce hanging cards that point to new varieties. It's very important that these innovative seed lines are brought to the customers' attention."
Cross agrees, adding that innovation is essential to garden centre accounts. He points out that retailers no longer accept a range of seeds that does not change annually.
Johnsons' list of 11 exclusive seed varieties for the 2013 season is headed by poppy 'St George' (£1.59 for 500 seeds), an annual blend of crimson and white semi-double flowers, and runner bean 'Windsor' (£3.15 for 50 seeds), a vigorous, stringless new variety that has been developed with improved pod set - a good selling point bearing in mind our unpredictable British summers.
7. The sweet pea fest
Mr Fothergill's has designated 2013 as the "year of the sweet pea", with an RHS Chelsea Flower Show centenary variety leading its new range of 25 seed varieties. The pale-lavender multiflora sweet pea 'Chelsea Centenary' costs £1.99 for 20 seeds.
Director John Fothergill says the initiative was an acknowledgement of the sweet pea as Britain's favourite annual flower. "It has a special place in many gardeners' affections. When people see the display of our range in shops it will encourage even more to have a go at growing their own."
Other sweet pea exclusives from Mr Fothergill's for 2013 are four varieties in the Solway series - 'Blue Vein', 'Minuet', 'Serenade' and 'Velvet'. All are intermediate in height, reaching around 1m tall. Another exclusive for the firm is 'Pandemonium', a large red-flowered Spencer-type sweet pea.
Suttons is also strengthening its sweet pea offering and has one on the front of its new catalogue. The firm is supplying dedicated racks and 28 retail varieties, some of them new to the market. The packets have been redesigned this year and made decidedly more "feminine".
Unwins Seeds and Kings Seeds are both traditionally strong with the flower, and Kings still produces its own seed. Unwins is launching two new exclusive sweet pea varieties in the online range in September and there will also be some new mix seeds in its January catalogue.
8. Grow your own continues
Roberts says: "With the current economy showing no signs of improving, and the cost of fuel and supermarket products increasing, the trend for 'growing your own' is set to continue. Growing your own vegetables is a low-cost way to feed your family. Not only do customers get the thrill and satisfaction of 'plot-to-plate' vegetables, but the equivalent vegetables in the supermarket can often cost much, much more."
Cross agrees: "Of course, seed is reasonably inexpensive, and growing your own vegetables is something people turn to when money is tight." Meanwhile, Westland's mail-order edible brand Marshalls is bringing out a retail range.
9. Do not forget Christmas
One does not automatically think of sowing seeds at Christmas, but as gifts for gardeners, and even children, they can be very profitable. Arnold says: "We supply seed starter packs for children and they make superb stocking fillers. Many of the retailers we supply have promoted them in store to great effect. It is another useful gardening line at a time when garden centres often struggle to sell items other than Christmas trees and baubles."
Buckingham Nurseries & Garden Centre director Peter Brown adds: "Many of our customers come in before Christmas and buy up an assortment of seed packs to give away to gardening friends and relatives. One packet can look measly, but a handful of them makes a great gift and is always highly appreciated."
10. Sell seeds online
Finally, although most garden centres do not have commercial online activity, if this is something you have been wondering about starting, packet seeds, being flat and lightweight, are ideal. This is worth considering as a "toe in the water".
The internet market for garden products stood at £220m in 2011 and this is set to almost double to £400m by 2016. Although more than 75 per cent of all consumer spending is still in shops, 40 per cent of buyers have first researched their purchases on the internet and 20 per cent of purchases are now made online.
All of the familiar packet seed retail suppliers also have a mail-order division with significant online sales. Then there are the dedicated mail-order seedsmen who have a huge online presence. This includes the DT Brown edible range from Dobies.
As we have already seen, Mr Fothergill's, which also owns DT Brown, has admitted that retail sales were 10 per cent down on average over the past year. However, general manager Tim Jeffries points out that, for the same period, DT Brown was up by 25 per cent - and this was the third successive year of increased sales.
Kings Seeds/Suffolk Herbs 01376 570000
Mr Fothergill's/Johnsons/DT Brown/Country Value 01638 751161
Suttons/Carters/Dobies/Eden Project Seeds 0844 922 2899
Thompson & Morgan/Alan Titchmarsh Seeds/Duchy Originals organics 0844 248 5383
Unwins Seeds 01480 443395.