2009 could still be good for retailers

The great debate in garden retail this spring is whether this season will be a good one or not.

Will the recession hit trade or will garden centres ride out the financial downturn?

The often-voiced advantage that garden centres have is not only that they can give a family a cheap day out, but also that they can offer free parking and nice cafes as well as cheap and cheerful goods.

More boons are that people are staying at home rather than taking foreign holidays and may take more trips to their garden centres, especially now that a hard winter has killed off some garden plants and they may need to replace a number of greens.

Easter is well placed this year rather than too early as it was in 2008. While centres may be leaner, many are more developed than ever. Also, as weaker centres have closed - or will close - there will be less competition. In addition, fewer people are moving house so may want to improve their own homes and gardens.

On the downside, interest rates are lower, leaving retired customers with less savings; more people are unemployed, so short of cash; and few people look likely to spend on big-ticket items such as garden furniture, barbecues and specimen plants. Also, TV gardening and major shows such as Chelsea are at a low ebb and BBC TV's Gardeners' World only starts a week before Easter this year in early April.

However, the strong euro means garden centres will be selling more British plants. This is a real boost and fits in with NFU and RHS campaigns but may mean that prices will rise as cheap stock from Europe is not available. But at this time, perceived bargains are attractive to customers.

In the end, though, it all boils down to weather. Most garden centres would be happy coming in at a level equal to 2008, when the weather turned against them. If the sun shines on key weekends, all could be well. And then if it rains non-stop after mid-June no one will care anymore.

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