Managing director David Robinson said: "The weather wasn't great at the start of the year and there was heavy discounting of seeds. We rode that - the strength of the brand insulates us against discounting but we did see some impact on (sub-brand) Dobies.
"People were looking for cheap seeds and I think we did lose some trade from heavy discounters. The Garden Centre Association showed a four per cent decline. We're still not discounting - it's part of our retailer ethos and I still don't think it is right for the industry. If anything, discounting has been stepped up by our competitors."
He said "partial returns" started more than a year ago with several customers and "has done really well". One big customer said they would have instigated the system themselves had they known how good it would be. Robinson said the system means "keeping lines in there unless they are going to be discontinued or are coming up to sell-by date. Otherwise, we keep topping up stock."
The industry practice is to receive returns from retailers at the end of the season (full stock credit), but Robinson said topping up helps sales by having full shelves and it is greener to not have seed delivered and then sent back, and potentially thrown away. The system has been well received and sales have risen four per cent or more in those using it, and he sees it becoming more widespread.
Suttons has new ranges for 2017 in connection with Big Allotment Challenge winner Rob Smith. The Rob Smith heritage vegetable and cut-and-come-again flower ranges are launching in the September Dobies seed catalogue. Suttons is in talks about a possible retail partner. There is also a new Rob Smith tool range and a new grafted vegetable range.
Meanwhile, after a flat year for seed sales in 2015, and with the prospect of trade barriers post-Brexit, seed companies are looking to be relatively conservative for 2017. Mr Fothergill's Ian Cross said there are no big new launches for next year, with an alignment of point of sale and tweaking of ranges instead.
Kings Seeds said it is a "bumper year" for new varieties. The Essex-based seedsman is celebrating the year of the bean and the year of the zinnia, as is Mr Fothergill's. Among new Kings launches are Broad Bean Karmazyn, Climbing French Bean Cobra, Spring Onion Lilia, Chilli Pepper Tabasco, Petunia hybrid Purple Velvet F1 and Sweet Pea Winston Churchill. Kings revamped its whole range in 2016 after the arrival of Andrew Tokely from Thompson & Morgan (T&M).
Wasabi Rocket is T&M's vegetable of the year. "I've trialled and tasted countless rocket varieties in my career," said T&M vegetable expert Colin Randel. "They all have some degree of peppery heat, but to experience a totally new flavour from this popular salad crop was totally unexpected. All the warmth and flavour you would expect from wasabi but none of the painful nose burn that comes with it."
The company's flower of the year is Calendula 'Snow Princess' - "the closest to pure white you can get, with petals being strongly contrasted by either a dark or yellow centre".
Mr Fothergill's has two charity launches, Sweet Pea Red Tunic for the Royal Hospital Chelsea and Sweet Pea Greenfingers for the hospice garden charity, donating 25p for each packet sold.
Westland-owned Unwins Seeds' Sweet Pea range will be available in updated packaging with in-store merchandising opportunities based on colour combinations.