Many garden centres are justly proud of the displays and events they put on over the festive season. But retail analysts say that even in a climate of economic caution there are untapped opportunities to maximise sales.
Christmas has become a year-round activity for retailers, with dedicated trade shows in January followed by product ordering, most Christmas tree orders placed in the summer and displays going up in stores as early as September.
Recognising the importance of what would otherwise be a quiet time in garden centres, the Garden Centre Association presents awards annually to those with the best seasonal displays.
Retail consultant Roger Crookes was a judge on last season's competition - won by Barton Grange Garden Centre in Lancashire and Castle Gardens Garden Centre in Dorset.
For him, the garden centres that stand out are those that best use their own initiative. "No matter what area of retail you're talking about, the most underused resource is what's between people's ears," he says. "Fortunately, garden centres are very good at wowing customers with displays, especially decorations.
"However, customers are becoming more savvy and more cautious. Garden centres need to look beyond just the decorations, which have reached saturation point. What else is on customers' minds when they are in seeing Father Christmas or tucking into the Christmas menu?"
Here, retailers are fortunate in that current trends in gardening are less obviously seasonal, says Crookes. "Take grow your own. Young families are getting into it and, unlike bedding or roses, it's a year-round concern. The same goes for wildlife gardening. You can put together a whole package - make it a bit more theatrical. People don't want to give aftershave at Christmas. They want something more meaningful."
On a smaller scale, he adds: "Something I look out for is mistletoe. In most centres it's in a crate somewhere that you have to hunt for, but one I saw had it strung up above head height with a sign saying 'tried and tested'. There are lots of opportunities like that to link in what you're selling with people's expectations."
Garden retail consultant Eve Tigwell says that while attractive displays are key, retailers should not lose sight of their primary purpose. "A lot of people can make a beautiful display, but can you afford window dressing that people can't shop from? Very few retailers can afford space that isn't used for selling," she says.
Instead of detaching display from merchandising, she adds, the two should be integrated. "An attractively-dressed tree, for example, should have the same decorations available in an accessible spot right next to it. And offer the whole tree for sale on Christmas Eve, wrapped in cling-film and delivered. A quality, ready-dressed tree can fetch over £1,000."
A dressed table and chair display can also be alluring - providing the furniture and everything on it are for sale, she advises, and the mantra "see-like-buy" should be in the heads of all designers. "Your hot spots, in particular, need to work," she adds. "I often don't see enough merchandising here. But if you aren't getting this right, then you're in trouble."
Christmas lights are a classic example of a product that has to be displayed to appeal to customers. But to do this effectively requires "blackout conditions", says Tigwell. "Then you can make it easy for customers by having a display on the top of the aisles and the product down below - even if you do quite dressy displays."
Plants should not be forgotten about over the season, she urges. "It's not a time when planterias are looking their best.
But you can get good plant sales at Christmas. Cyclamens at hot spots are easy to pick up."
The seasonal staple of poinsettias can be made more eye-catching with a spray of blue glitter and displayed in attractive pots, especially set against a white background. But Christmas is also a good time to sell orchids, and linked sales that go with them. "Or dress up regular heather plants in wicker baskets - and why not offer to gift wrap it?" suggests Tigwell. "All that gives you plant sales in that difficult period."
As for Christmas trees themselves, "the Nordmann has basically won, which is good for retailers because it means a move to a quality, higher-price product," she says. But even these can be made more appealing by attaching red bows to break up what can appear as a "wall of green". "Living trees" are picking up in popularity too, as part of the sustainable ethos, she adds.
And when it is all over, there is the question of what to do with unsold merchandise. "Do you pack it away, flog it off cheap, or ditch it?" asks Tigwell. "If you hold a sale every year, your customers will wait for it. It may be worth putting it away for next year, especially if it's in traditional red-green-gold. You then need to integrate it carefully with your new stock. But if you've simply made a mistake, it might be better in the skip or given away."
Another hassle of the season is the high level of losses from breakage and theft, she points out - "especially on things like baubles. You need to factor those into your margins".
But done right, there is no reason why garden centres should not turn a respectable profit from the festive period, she insists. "You should be in a double-figure profit percentage, and 15 per cent is achievable. Retailers often work to the double-plus-VAT formula to get from the wholesale price to the retail price. But you could be charging four or five times more plus VAT for certain lines if you are doing it right."
VIEW FROM THE SHOP FLOOR
- Tammy Woodhouse, managing director, Millbrook Garden Company
"We launch our Christmas season in the second week of October. Our Gravesend store has undergone a big building project, which will give us more room for giftware displays this year.
"We have several attractions including reindeer, a carousel run by Father Christmas and classes on how to make wreaths. We've done more year-on-year - people would notice if we took any of it away.
"It has to pay for itself. It costs quite a lot, but margins on Christmas stock are good. We see it as being about marketing rather than profit-making though, and raising money for charity is always part of it."
- Carol Paris, retail director, Garden & Leisure Group
"It's always been fairly significant for us, at around nine per cent of turnover, especially if you have a destination store - they need to be busy all year and Christmas needs to be self-supporting and to make a profit. We have got better at it over the years, which has allowed us to branch out into stand-alone Christmas outlets.
"We have some talented people who we can rely on to come up with displays. It's never easy in retail when the economy is bad, but Christmas will always be a time when home and family are important to people."
- Alan Roper, managing director, Blue Diamond Group
"We always go large on Christmas. We have 'Tea with Santa' for children regularly through late November and December, reindeer, live music and seasonal menus.
"Inside our stores we have broad, must-do principles, such as the use of colour, but then allow individual centres to run with their ideas and come up with creative displays within that.
"We analyse sales by colour and buy accordingly. There are trend colours every year that you can pick up on and use to add interest, but you can't pull away too much from red, gold and silver. "You also have to be competitive on known-value products, especially your entry-level Christmas range."
RETAIL GURU JOHN STANLEY'S DOS & DON'TS
1. Make sure that you have a Christmas Facebook page that you can update every day. This worked for a few retailers exceptionally well last year and more will be doing the same this year.
2. Lock in your Christmas to a local charity and be seen to support local issues.
3. "Pop-up retailing" - taking temporary sales space away from your main business - is a trend world-wide that garden centres are well placed to benefit from over Christmas.
1. Don't start Christmas without training the team in the requirements for Christmas customer service.
2. Don't neglect male shoppers. They can be big spenders but often need extra help.
3. Don't leave Christmas decorations up after 26 December.