Christmas sales in garden centres were up 12 per cent in October and November 2010, according to Garden Centre Association (GCA) figures. For many centres, December is now the third-busiest month of the year. Amazing (and expensive) Christmas attractions - snowmen to grottoes - feature at most centres these days.
And, after Webbs introduced the idea in 2008, Grosvenor, Bents, Garden & Leisure and Notcutts also opened pop-up Christmas stores at shopping centres last year - an easy way of using a trusted brand to increase seasonal sales.
The GCA Christmas Display Awards show how centres work to attract customers. Because the attractions are not there for fun, garden centres need to translate footfall into sales. That comes from merchandising in themed displays.
Louise Burks, Christmas co-ordinator at award-winner Gardens Group, says: "Christmas is important and drives business in November and December." She adds that November used to be the third worst month after January and February, but is now the third best, thanks to Christmas displays. What's more, December "is up there with May".
Burks's merchandising strategy is to "make the best display we can, then people buy into that". A Scottish hunting lodge scene includes traditional reds, greens and golds, with baubles, trees, ornaments, moose heads and tablecloths. The suppliers are Gisela Graham (for ornaments, wreaths, accessories and decorations), Kaemingk (ornamental buildings and boxes), Komstsmide (lights), Premier (decorations such as illuminated reindeer), Festive Lights and Big Decs (reindeer wreaths).
Burks adds: "We start the build-up in October and work right up to deadline. We have just minutes to spare before we open the doors on our first night. We're thrilled with this award."
HTA marketing director Andrew Maxted says: "Garden centres have built a strong presence in the Christmas market and are widely recognised by consumers as must-visit destinations in the run-up to the festive season. The challenge is to ensure merchandising, point-of-sale (POS) material and staff can convert that footfall to sales."
GCA Christmas displays inspector Ian Boardman says "racks and parades" are the key to success, meaning goods should be placed next to a dressed tree or table. He criticises "howlers" such as goods in baskets on the floor and fragmented displays. He recommends pricing everything, exploiting best sellers, using hots spots, wheeled shopping baskets and POS material, and planning now for Christmas 2011.
Key areas include lights, tableware, artificial trees, twigs and model villages, grottoes, toys, silks, baubles and tinsel. Some suppliers include Triflora (for battery-operated illuminated snowmen/present boxes), Yankee Candle, Bolsius (candles), National Tree Company (artificial trees), Noma Lites, Holly International (Christmas-tree stands), Giftware Trading and Salco (home wares).
Scotsdale's Tillington Group Christmas magazine won Garden Retail's Best Themed Promotion Award in 2010. Judges said the 200,000 magazines brought "unbelievably good redemptions" on items such as free mince pies and coffee, a Scotsdale teddy bear and Gardman Fat Snax for birds.
The promotion led to a 10 per cent increase in sales overall, a 17 per cent uplift in gift sales, and a 20 per cent increase in Christmas sales. In the wake of such success, Tillington's Christmas magazine is planned to reach 2.5 million people this year.
DECK THE HALLS
Notcutts chief executive Andy King has overseen the brand's Deck the Halls pop-up stores in the Bluewater and Milton Keynes shopping centres.
The Bluewater shop is next to WHSmith and follows the Christmas trend in garden retail started by Webbs. King, a former marketing executive at various high street retailers, says: "My experience tells me location is everything."
He is not worried that the shops' Christmas focus might distract from Notcutts' gardening reputation: "We have developed a very strong tradition for Christmas - we do it really well and customers come a long way, so it is logical to take our offer to a wider customer base by opening (the pop-up shops).
"My background is with Bodyshop, Mothercare, WHSmith and Boots. Other members of the executive team also understand how high street retailing works."