Plant consolidation is becoming more the norm in supplying garden centres because many growers take the view that the best way to compete with the highly efficient suppliers on the continent is to be more like them.
This has prompted a growing number of conventional hauliers to offer a specialist service to the horticulture trade. One such is Trolley Net, an offshoot of Bedfordshire-based Anderson Transport. The company is now applying the Trolley Net livery to its horticulture fleet.
Director David Anderson highlights the differences between distributing plants compared to more conventional cargos. "There's no margin for error," he says. "Customers place orders on Monday and expect them to be there by Friday. It's a very pressurised business with a lot of things moving in different directions.
"Also, most growers are used to being in control of their own distribution and it takes two or three years for them to trust you with the responsibility of delivering their plants."
But he adds that, in terms of the service to garden centres, there is no great difference between live and packaged products. "The next phase will be to add palettes. If you're getting your ten trolleys of plants delivered, why not palettes of barbecues too?" he asks.
"Plant deliveries keep us busy for eight or nine months of the year but we have fully-employed staff. We already deliver Christmas trees and poinsettias - we might as well deliver the Christmas tree lights."
Trolley Net provides two kinds of service to growers. For its main clients — currently numbering 16 — the firm takes on full responsibility for plant distribution. Many more associate clients use Trolley Net service as the need arises.
"Some garden centres may get 50 deliveries a week, each delivering one or two trolleys," says Anderson. "But at the other extreme, when it all comes at once, you have a problem with staffing because the work comes in a peak and the garden centre may not have 40 empty trolleys to return. So there's a balance to be struck."
Key to the operation is the Trolley Net website, which allows potential customers to see which growers are part of the system. "Each grower has information on the website - even those that don't have their own sites - so the garden centre can find out what's on their looking-good lists," Anderson explains.
He adds that he is "neutral" on which growers plants are shipped to and will work with growers competing in a given category. "We are independent and offer an unbiased service to all our customers," he points out. "Already five or six garden centres are paying for us to pick up from the grower, who gets an ex-nursery price, like in the Netherlands."
Elsewhere, growers themselves have the driving force behind consolidating and distributing plants.
One small but well-established organisation is the Anglia Group of Nurseries, consisting of three East of England growers that aim to offer a complementary range of plants - Whartons (roses), Morley (ericaceous plants) and Darby Nursery Stock, which covers most other hardy stock lines. The group supplies 250 retailers across the UK from its base at Snetterton in Norfolk.
Darby sales manager Chris Finlay, who chairs the HTA's retail suppliers committee, says the approach can increase efficiency. "It's 'just in time' - our plants are packed up on the nursery at the end of the day and will already be on the road to the customer in the early hours of the morning," he explains.
There are also benefits for the retailer, he says: "Rather than five lorries from five different suppliers blocking up the car park, they have only one delivery from one lorry to deal with. It is more efficient and less time-consuming."
A sales team of "eight or nine" looks after the relationship with customers, while a full-time stock controller ensures that stock is kept at its peak and that the sales team is kept up to date.
This personal touch is essential for selling plants and limits the opportunities for automation, Finlay explains. "The HTA has been trialling Hebe, a web-based ordering system. It works fine if you're selling weedkiller, for example, but it wouldn't work for us.
"Ours is a live product, constantly changing. Our customers need to know what's in flower. We are their eyes and ears, and we want to sell them the best plants at the best time. If it was on the net, you would be constantly updating it."
Finlay says a good relationship with customers means speaking to them every week. "If they have a busy sales weekend coming up, they need to know what will have the 'wow' factor right then. In peak season, it's a very fast-moving, high-volume business, and one that needs to react rapidly to things like the weather," he explains.
He admits that groups such as Anglia still have work to do to out-perform continental suppliers. "They have bigger, better cooperatives - we are some way behind them. On the other hand, people want locally-grown plants, the strong euro is a deterrent and when it comes to grow-your-own fruit trees, they're unlikely to have the varieties that British gardeners want."
Rather than being in competition with other hubs, each can gain by co-operating with others, he adds. "We will exchange plants with Midland Regional Growers (MRG). The transport companies have loosely arranged this between themselves. It reduces 'plant miles' overall."
MRG established a transport hub in February 2006 that is now run independently by White Logistics. According to managing director of member grower Bransford Webbs Geoff Caesar: "They keep it moving along, with a web-based ordering system for trolleys.
"It makes it easier for us - we have no traffic planning or mechanical issues to worry about. White's cost control is more efficient and its service has been exemplary. Handling plants and trolleys was a departure for the firm and it had to learn how to do it. We carefully monitor customer feedback, but that's been good."
White sends email updates on delivery progress. "If there are any late deliveries they will let both us and the customer know," says Caesar, adding: "It doesn't necessarily get us more sales, but it makes it easier. We were already a national supplier, but for a grower that might only supply two or three counties it takes a lot of thought to start covering a wider area. This makes it a lot more straightforward."
While such services are becoming more common they are not yet the norm, he adds. "Some companies value having their own fleet - it depends how efficiently you can run it. If you do a landscape service too, your trucks are less likely to sit idle. And though in theory you get fewer, bigger deliveries, that's not necessarily happening in practice."
Nearby fruit tree specialist nursery Frank P Matthews is one that still values its own fleet. With garden centres overwhelmingly selling trees that are container-grown, managing director Nick Dunn says this keeps the company's distribution arm busy for nine or ten months a year.
"We have invested in our own lorries and drivers, and send 80 per cent of trees using them. At peak periods we use White Logistics - it is more efficient than we can be for little-and-often deliveries. But if problems arise it will be when stock has gone to a central hub and gone out to a third party, which they sometimes have to, and you get a communication breakdown.
"Customers want deliveries that same week, but may not want to take them on a Friday or a Monday. We all face the same challenges of restricted opportunities to deliver. We are always looking at ways we can streamline distribution, but it's not something you can really automate, unless customers in one area agree to be on a single run."
Securing the network
The backbone of the plant distribution network remains the "Danish" trolley, which is leased by Denmarkand Netherlands-based Container Centralen (CC). The company has announced the introduction of radio frequency identification (RFID) in a year's time.
Trolley Net is a partner of CC. David Anderson welcomes the move: "I think it's good that it is tagging up the trolleys. There are too many people using the trolleys and not paying for them. There's a good 5,000 garden retailers and only 1,000 CC accounts. RFID will help that.
"It's like the difference between people who are working and people who claim that they're not working but are working anyway. The first lot do not appreciate having to provide support for the second."
In August, CC successfully brought a prosecution against a rival Dutch manufacturer producing imitation CC trolleys.
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