Dobbies Garden Centres' new boss Nicholas Marshall has made no secret of his plans to buy more from British nurseries. The chain is holding an event next week "to show nurseries what we want to do in the centres and online" - where Dobbies is teaming up with Ocado to provide an enhanced web offer.
Marshall says he got British-based growers' plant supply up to 80% when he was at Wyevale and he "aims to do the same at Dobbies". Its new leaders have "exciting plans which will help shape the gardening industry going forwards, including championing British nurseries".
The event has been arranged at Kew by Dobbies to share its vision with the industry. It has invited around 100 nurseries, large and small, including at least 10 RHS Chelsea Flower Show exhibitor specialists. The aim is to provide a platform for growers to sell more plants, particularly online, using the resources Dobbies now has through Ocado.
Dobbies wants to train in-store staff to take orders from customers for plants showcased at centres and thus integrate online and in-store. The retailer is not expecting national supply but says many plants are only seen at Chelsea or other shows, or if they are happened upon online, but would now have a broader sales platform. There would be individual negotiations with each nursery on supply.
Growers and retailers are split as to whether they have seen much impact on UK-sourced plant supply since the referendum in June last year and the broader question of more UK plant supply is also tricky. FloraHolland figures suggest imports to the UK are back up to pre-Brexit levels after falling off following the referendum.
Simon Fraser of Ben Reid Garden Centre in Aberdeen says the UK industry still has a lot to do to step up supply. "If Dobbies and the big chains want to work with British growers on more homegrown it is doable but the industry has a big challenge in nursery supply stepping up to do that. Are they going to put the resources in?
"If Dobbies work in partnership with the nursery industry, it will work. They have to get away from the supermarket relationship and give geographic autonomy to planteria managers. The waste must be appalling if they're sending trolleys to different areas of the country without asking (whether they are needed)."
Fraser says he wants Dobbies, which in recent years has not used Scottish growers, to do well because its customers are often entry-level and then graduate to a specialist such as Ben Reid.
HTA regional business manager for Scotland and Northern Ireland Neil Cummings says: "The reality is the more homegrown stock we have the better, particularly with plant health. It's a case of working with nurseries and managing expectations. Scottish nurseries have declined in the last few years and it's going to take some time to build up the numbers again. We're encouraging the Scottish Government to get on board so it's not just garden centres but procurement planting of hardy plants fit for Scotland."
Notcutts chairman Nicky Dulieu says she has "not really" seen an increase "because the majority of our plants are already from the UK". Tony Hewitt, chairman of Glendale Horticulture owner Parkwood Holdings, says a move into buying more British is yet to happen. "At our last board meeting I heard the Dutch have held prices despite the euro making them more expensive. But I can't see that happening forever."
Hillier director Chris Francis says the nursery used more homegrown plants than ever on its RHS Chelsea Flower Show display, reaching 90% of its own nursery material, which is also promoted heavily in its 12 garden centres. Suttons says its grafted UK-grown plant sales are up by 20% this year, with a product that is also available as overseas-grown from other suppliers.
Promoting homegrown oak trees
The HTA launched a paper at Chelsea detailing its scheme to make all oaks sold in the UK homegrown after finding more than one million were imported since 2013. The association says there is a great opportunity for the UK "to increase production of this iconic tree, thereby boosting the economy and improving biosecurity".
The main challenges are to improve supply chain efficiency and encourage better sourcing of UK-grown trees, it adds. This is part of the ornamental round table strategy, which has been given further opportunities to develop post-Brexit as import prices have risen as sterling has weakened.
HTA horticulture director Raoul Curtis-Machin says: "There are no physical reasons why we shouldn't be growing most of our own oak trees in the UK." The Conservative Party election manifesto pledges to honour a promise to plant 11 million new trees by 2020. Curtis-Machin says the Government was "woefully short" of hitting tree planting targets in the previous term.
According to UK Government statutory notification data, between 2013 and 2015 there were 1,597,567 trees imported, of which 1,117,696 were oak (Quercus species). The main supplying countries were the Netherlands (575,000), Belgium (323,000) and Hungary, France and Bulgaria (fewer than 32,000 each).
Making online work - Experience is key to successful garden centre websites, say industry figures
Longacres IT manager Michael Ainley says years of experience are needed to make garden centre websites successful and he can understand why Dobbies has linked with Ocado to develop online sales rather than setting up its own systems, as Wyevale Garden Centres has done.
Ainley, who works for Britain's biggest-turnover centre, in Bagshot, Surrey, which now also has sites at Shepperton and Ashford, says: "Our website is going from strength to strength. We're selling in a couple of new marketplaces and seeing good growth.
"I can see why Dobbies has partnered with someone and not just managed it themselves. It makes sense to do that. It's certainly not an easy thing to jump into. We have the benefit of starting in 2002 and Wyevale Garden Centres highlighted it's not an easy thing for large organisations. For Dobbies it was the smart thing to do.
"You want someone good as a partner for the site. Money spent by some businesses is not necessarily justified. Usually it can be done more cheaply without corporate levels of spending. It's now a relatively large competitive market on the online side so you need to find something you're good at and competitive on. There's a lot of 'me too', which is a race to the bottom - who can sell cheapest. The UK is possibly still the country happiest to spend online."
Experts are saying Dobbies' five-year deal with Speciality Stores, the general merchandise subsidiary of Ocado Group, will fast-track the chain's online offer.
After the sale of Crowders garden centre to Wyevale Garden Centres in 2016, the company decided to focus on its core wholesale nursery businesses and put its website (www.crowders.co.uk) up for sale. Crowders said it had hoped to turn over in excess of £1m through the site.
Magento Enterprise built the platform through 2015 and there are features including a marketplace module, links to Amazon, eBay and Tesco shopping platforms and the capability of offering a full multichannel solution for retailers through back-end integration.
The current owners say they have already taken all of the development "pain" to offer a site built and developed to deliver a properly integrated multichannel retailing platform. The sale includes all intellectual assets and property rights, customer databases, links, back-end interfaces, payment gateways and assigned hosting arrangements, Facebook pages and all relevant social media access.
Meanwhile, a new integrated web store has generated £250,000 revenue per month for UK hydroponics wholesaler HydroGarden. Implementing Sana Commerce's integrated e-commerce solution alongside Microsoft Dynamics NAV has also increased website order values by 58% and order volumes by 31% in the first year.
HydroGarden previously worked with an e-commerce system developed by its ERP system provider, but orders could take up to 30 minutes to process.