Bedding sales: annual challenge

Growers remain hopeful for an autumn turnaround and business in the year ahead despite poor weather ruining much of 2012

Recent better weather has meant an upturn in business and growers are hoping for good sales this autumn - image: HW
Recent better weather has meant an upturn in business and growers are hoping for good sales this autumn - image: HW
Bedding growers entered the year full of optimism, fully expecting a boost in sales to come as a result of the big events of 2012 — the London Olympic Games and the Queen’s diamond jubilee. But the bonanza did not materialise because the industry was hit by what many have said is the worst weather for 60 years.

The spring, which should have been the strongest period of the year, turned out to be the weakest for most, with torrential rain throughout April and poor weather continuing well into the summer. The recent improvement in the weather has meant an upturn in business and a number of growers are looking to autumn sales to try to limit the damage from earlier in the year.

Looking to next year, an atmosphere of caution pervades, but growers are generally optimistic and keen to put this unusually bad year behind them. Production levels look likely to be similar to this year for most growers, with no big increases but no one significantly cutting back.

"It has been a difficult season and most growers want to put this year behind them," says Earley Ornamentals owner Simon Earley. "People have had so much waste this year so they are being cautious. Most people view it as a one-off year. It has been the worst weather for 60 years and you have to put it in context. When the weather was right, it was busy. The rain in June just didn’t stop and the jubilee bank holiday being moved didn’t help. We will be keeping similar production levels to this year."

Difficult planning

Crosby’s Nurseries has had a "passable" year and it is 7-8 per cent down, according to owner Brian Crosby. "Hopefully we won’t have another wet year — it’s very difficult to plan ahead," he says. "The garden centres have all been very cautious this year and it’s difficult when things aren’t moving out of the centres."

Ball Colegrave marketing manager Stuart Lowen suggests "cautious optimism" is the way to describe the feeling in the industry at the moment. "Everybody has to weigh up this season," he maintains. "Growers and retailers need to strengthen their relationships — it’s been a challenging season for both and a lot of relationships have been challenged. Working together is so important and strong relationships have got to be there."

Like many growers Allensmore Nurseries has found that the weather made for good sales from August. "I’m very pleased with how it’s gone," says chairman Brian Taylor. "If it carries on into October, we’ll be OK. We’ll never pick up what we lost in spring. April, May and June were the weakest months and they are normally the strongest. October is difficult — it’s the lull before the storm. People are holding back before Christmas. Hopefully this year won’t affect too many people. We were sorry to hear about Highland Heathers and hopefully there won’t be too many more."

Allensmore too will be keeping production levels similar to this year. "We have a certain amount of space," Taylor explains. "We have expanded our production area and we’re certainly planning to fill it. If we plan it right and talk to our customers, we should be OK. We have to get reserves and make sure they’re really what the customers want."

Many growers are hoping that autumn will go some way to make up what was lost in the spring and summer. Autumn gardening is seeing a bigger push this year than previously and initiatives such as the HTA Plan it, Plant it this Autumn and the RHS Autumn Planting for Year-Round Colour campaigns are trying to encourage consumers to continue gardening throughout the autumn months. So far, good weather is meaning autumn is looking promising.

"Autumn orders are feeding through reasonably well on the back of last season," says Lowen at Ball Colegrave. "People are looking to autumn to pick up some of the loss from this season." Rosebank Nurseries manager Andrew Pattinson adds: "Autumn orders have been better than normal. People have been asking for later stuff. The pansy season has started later by about a fortnight. We are in front of last year and we’re looking to do at least the same again next year."

Seasonal promotion

Kernock Park Plants is promoting the Proven Winners Autumn Magic range through the Proven Winners UK website, with a range of plants, planting recipes and autumn gardening ideas. "We are promoting autumn planting and making sure people look at our site to see what they can do," says business development manager Mark Taylor.

"We haven’t pushed autumn as vociferously as this year previously. The general feeling is that autumn is a decent time for planting. The weather cheered up for September and people are still spending time in the garden. There are possibilities," he maintains.

Taylor suggests the change of name of the HTA Bedding Plants Group to the Seasonal Plant Group is part of this. "Talking about spring, summer and autumn seasonal plants sounds better and gives the message it’s not just summer. We’re promoting it on the back of the HTA and RHS campaigns, and other things going on, trying to encourage consumers to go into garden centres and buy bedding."

For Kernock too, business has been improving. Taylor says: "Some things have picked up a bit. It will take a while to get back to where we were, or where we thought we should be. The weather at the moment seems to be helping us. Our customers are showing interest and orders are coming in for next year at about the same levels as they were for 2012. The confidence is coming back but it will be slow."

Taylor stresses that the poor weather will continue to have an effect. "There are some issues with payments. Growers are waiting for garden centres and so we’re waiting for some growers to pay us. Also, there is a bit more price pressure than last year. There is always some pressure but there’s a bit more sensitivity this year."

Another question is how much the weather will influence which products are popular next year. Will those varieties that have performed well despite the rain and poor light levels be those attracting the most interest in 2013? "If you take seasonal plants as a separate entity, there will be a bit of looking over the garden gate to see what has performed this year," Taylor suggests. "It’s always difficult to know how long the consumer’s memory is. I suspect they will be led by what’s on the garden centre shelf at the time."

Botany Bay sales and product development manager Tom Johns adds: "In terms of volume of business it has been a poor year. There is less money in the system. The weather this year will probably affect what happens next year. We are looking at bigger plug sizes to reduce the production time."

British Protected Ornamentals Association chairman Ian Riggs stresses that bedding growers have a lot to consider going into next year. "Growers are having to make careful choices about their growing regimes," he says. "There will be no speculation — no crops grown on spec. It’s difficult to get commitment from people. Retailers are in the same boat as us. A lot of growers are putting thought into what they’re growing."

Positive mood

In general, despite the difficulties, the mood in the bedding sector is positive. Channel Island Plants managing director Paul Jackson is one grower feeling optimistic about next year. "We are at the start of the supply chain and we’ve had a reasonable year, but all our customers have had a more difficult time than we’ve seen," he explains. "Everyone is being more cautious. People are waiting for the last minute."

Production will not increase much, but he is always looking to introduce new plants to the range. "We’re hoping to have some new products, and we’ll maybe increase production a little. We are working on new crops that can grow cooler and perennial products we can introduce to the ornamentals market. We are trying to bring in more plants with as much colour as we can.

"Cautious optimism is the way to describe it. I’m not complaining — I’m looking forward to next year."

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