Prince Charles said last week that rural businesses suffer because of lack of internet access. The Prince said isolated communities, which already struggle to make a living, face an "immense handicap" without the ability to promote their goods or download information through websites and email.
The "broadband desert" problem has led the Country Land & Business Association, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Local Government Association to band together to pressurise the Government to make countryside its priority when it comes to rolling out broadband across the UK.
The Prince's plea came as the HTA released a report called Gardeners Online, saying that the market for garden products is becoming blurred between the internet, mail order and traditional garden centres and nurseries.
While online sales are not hugely up since the previous survey in 2007, 74% of keen gardeners now have access to the internet — just 2% below the national average. This is up 22% since 2007.
Eight out of 10 gardeners use the net to get information on their hobby and six out of 10 buy products and services online. Gardeners said the inspiration they find online is now increasingly important, with 27% now saying the net is an important source. Garden centres' equivalent rating is 4%.
The report found the number of people buying gardening online has remained at one in five but that the internet's role as a means of driving footfall and for communication for gardening businesses is an increasingly important value measure for retailers.
HTA marketing director Andrew Maxted said: "This is incredibly hard to research but our feeling is that there has been a substantial shift from the old mail-order business done through the post to online.
"People are getting brochures and going to websites to order or looking online and going to retailers. It's becoming more blurred. At Argos, people place orders online and go to the store to pick up. I'm not aware of garden centres doing this yet but I'm sure [some] are."
Garden centre consultant and Garden Retail online columnist Doug Stewart says: "What part of our business creates new customers, meets the needs of existing customers, reduces staff costs and can increase average spend? You guessed it: websites."
He said websites are about more than being a well-managed presence: "They are also about establishing a presence where your customers go online." This includes using free social networking sites such as Facebook to communicate special offers and events and by adding "excitement and theatre" by blogging to say "we have just grown the best crop of bedding ever" or "we have just taken delivery of our new range of garden furniture".
At last week's Garden Industry Manufacturers' Association business meeting, Garden Centre Group (formerly Wyevale) chief executive Nicholas Marshall said the 120-outlet group's new 700,000 gardening club was a "powerful tool" for marketing with a 27% sales rise after the group sent members a new catalogue in September.
Exclusive benefits at the group include bedding, which is £3.49 for six pansies or £2.99 for club members. Two-for-£10 Hebe and Sedum that normally cost £6.99/£5.99, three-for-twos on Cyclamen and mix-and-match three-for-twos are further examples of club offers. Westland lawn feed and J Arthur Bower's bark are heavily discounted, as are Joseph Bentley tools.
Marshall said the Garden Centre Group had 25% to 30% of members' emails and hoped to build that number and membership (to one million) next year.
He added: "Suppliers should bear that in mind that this gardening club is a very powerful way to get to gardening customers without spending oodles of money advertising in papers and on TV."
The club apes Tesco's Clubcard, which tracks shopping habits of 16 million families in the UK. The information creates a huge search engine, called the Dunnhumby Shop, which is used for research by Tesco and more than 200 suppliers. This helps Tesco to decide which products should go onto the shelves at what times, and in early trials it increased sales by 12% in some of the supermarkets. Tesco can gauge if prices are too high or low and can entice customers with special offers. The system also provides tips, offers and freebies gained via reward points.
Maxted added: "Gardening clubs' email addresses are increasingly vital. You only have to look at what Prince Charles said last weekend. Rural businesses are disadvantaged by not having access to broadband. That puts it into context how important e-commerce is to everyone.
"There are opportunities to talk to customers through PCs and mobiles. It's something all businesses have to look at. This report underlines the rate of acceptance of new technology. Gardeners have been slower to do this than other people but are catching up fast.
"As an industry, we are not taking advantage of new technology as much as we should. Some retailers are more advanced than others if you look at Thompson & Morgan or Gardening Direct or Crocus, which has been helped by its online tie-up with Homebase.
"These are the models gardening businesses should be looking at."
HTA GIM FIGURES
- Plants account for 75% of mail-order/online garden-related sales
- Mail order/online accounts for 12% of total retail plant sales and around four per cent of non-plant sales
- Garden Industry Monitor figures indicate that eight per cent of all garden product sales (including plants) are made through online/mail order
Figures are correct for year ending September 2008