A panel chaired by Horticulture Week deputy editor Matthew Appleby discussed the pros and cons of the little-and-often approach at the Garden Retail Summit earlier this month.
Topping up with fresh stock several times a week has obvious benefits, such as giving retailers the flexibility to cope with the impact of weather on customer numbers, according to Tillington Group plant-buying chairman Andy Bunker. The little-and-often approach sees his business working "far more week-to-week" rather than pacing itself with big preseason reserves. "It does make a little bit more work but the benefits are far greater," he said. "It allows you to have just that shelf of conifers rather than four trolleys from a conifer specialist."
Bransford Webbs Plant Company managing director Geoff Caesar said little-and-often means plants stay in the nursery for longer, with irrigation, protection and spray programmes all tailored to their needs. "It's very difficult to replicate those in the garden centre planteria. If we're supplying little-and-often we can maintain those plants in that ideal environment, they spend minimal time with the retailer, which suits the retailer as well, then they go straight to the consumer and into their garden, so it suits the consumer." That also suits the supplier because their plants are presented in the best possible light, Caesar explained.
Panellists also discussed the operational changes required to bed in a little-and-often approach. Smaller, more frequent deliveries are more costly, leading many suppliers to outsource deliveries to a third party.
Caesar said demand for little-and-often supply has changed the way Bransford Webbs works. Turnover at the company has gone up 45 per cent over the past decade but the average delivery size has stayed at 2.2 trolleys. Its response has been to become more efficient, building a dispatch warehouse that receives twice-daily deliveries from the nursery. The company has also contracted out its distribution to garden centres.
"We now (supply) most of the country twice a week, certainly through the peak of the season. The only way we could have done that was contracting out to a transport company that worked with other growers," said Caesar. This could lead to the formation of small grower groups that band together to use third-party transporters, a model he has already seen used successfully. "We had a group of Midland growers that went out to tender for a transport provider. We appointed one and it wasn't easy. They had a real learning curve to get it right. It was a challenge but they were equal to it and we get a very good service now."
The Plant Yard's Matt Graham said his company also cannot carry out little-and-often delivery without a third-party transporter, saying getting UK-wide coverage is "one of our biggest headaches". But the little-and-often approach has a positive effect, forcing suppliers to stay "sharp", becoming more forward-thinking and anticipating customer demand.
"This highlights that we will need people within the marketplace to communicate much more heavily," Graham added. "This industry is all about relationships and we're all on the same side. We need to sit round the table and talk through it otherwise we will dig ourselves into holes we will struggle to get out of."
Panellists dismissed suggestions that a Dutch auction model for the UK might be useful. "They are changing the way they do business," said one. "A lot of growers are avoiding the auctions and dealing direct with UK customers now."