Pondering the future direction of garden centres was high on the agenda at garden and leisure trade show Glee last week. Themes from the show were diverse, but included continued reliance on grow your own as a trend, with no clear new sales theme or way of reinvigorating product or plant displays emerging.
Even meerkats, a sales boom area of 2010, appears to be slowing. Bird care is an opportunity, if show launches are anything to go by, but while exhibitors such as Westland insist that they want to grow the market rather than take from others, it seems many new products are going head-to-head with existing ranges.
The introspection was especially apparent in the seminars at the show, which had 100 more exhibitors, at 700, than in 2009. Using technology to understand buying trends was a big theme.
At the Garden Retail seminar, retail guru John Stanley said: "The consumer is more informed then ever and we are now supporters rather than giving them advice. Any retailer to move forward today must know about what's happening in blogs. If we are not in tune then we are not giving the right advice."
Garden retailers must tap into technology such as Twitter, Facebook, Xbox and mobile phones to keep up with changing buying practices, said expert Scott Storey. He told Glee visitors he could think of no retail innovation whatsoever to emerge in the past three years, yet consumers were hugely innovative when buying.
Facebook has 500 million users, 27 million tweets are sent daily and 100 million hours of video have been uploaded to YouTube. Wikipedia has 12 million entries and five billion people have mobile phones out of a world population of 6.7 billion.
Another theme was how to make your garden centre more of a community hub. GardenWorks director Kevin Waters combined this with the grow your own and technological talk, telling delegates: "Garden centres need to become more like community centres to help overturn a sharp falling off in sales increases in areas like grow your own."
Waters told visitors to Glee that garden centres should be more like 21st century libraries - thriving hubs for the community. "Libraries today are no longer deathly quiet but bristling with activity from computers and cafes. The library has become a community centre," he said.
Stanley chided garden retailers on their community credentials by comparing them to farmers' markets. "In the USA, farmers' markets have grown by 24 per cent in the past few months and we started talking to the consumer and where there is an exceptionally well-managed market in the area, the garden centre custom goes down.
"We call it the social church. It used to the garden centre but now it's the farmers market. We have to look at the leading-edge retailers outside of their industry. We should look at those inspirational retailers and adapt ideas from them."
But Buckingham Nursery & Garden Centre plant publicity manager Chris Day responded: "I think garden centres can be more a part of the hub of the community. We took on a garden school project and it's amazing the reaction you get from the children. You get a lot of good responsive feedback and it creates the right kind of balance that perhaps garden centres don't show."
While the HTA is pushing cut-your-own flowers, Day believes fruit is the big opportunity in plants. "I do feel there's a lot of leverage in the development of fruits because fruit is more of a long-term thing. We need to remove a lot of the terminology - let's find a common language to communicate with the customer," he said.
Waters agreed that grow your own has reached saturation. "Percentage increases have gone from 25 to 30 per cent to two to three per cent this year. With grow your own you're taking them on a journey, translating a little pack of seeds into the end result. We need to do a little more to sell the product."
The idea of inspirational plant displays was core to the Garden Retail seminar. Gardeners' World magazine editor Adam Pasco said garden centres ignore plants all too often at times such as Christmas. "Garden centres do relegate gardening to a far corner during Christmas, for example. Of course, Christmas is an incredibly important marketing strategy for garden centres but so is gardening," he pointed out.
The Garden Retail debate moved onto the A-Z section of the planteria and whether it is obsolete. Stanley asked: "How many consumers understand Latin?" But Day said: "I think it's essential that we keep a bit of decorum there. I think that Latin contains a lot of credibility and it's a very dangerous game to go down that route (of getting rid of them)." HTA president Caroline Owen added: "An A-Z display should not become a dumping ground for plants."
But Day said issues would arise if A-Z is ditched. "The whole idea of stock control becomes a logistical nightmare. There's a whole lot of potential problems," he explained.
He said he had phoned the top 10 garden centres in the UK from the Garden Retail list and they said they are generally retaining their A-Z displays. "They did feel that the A-Z can be extremely boring so we can change the format. Customers do still come in with lists so why make it difficult for them?"
Pasco said: "A-Z serves a purpose but can be incredibly boring. So often, even on an A-Z base, the display labels are hardly there. You can put things in an A-Z bed but they are not inspiring."
Stanley concluded: "We need to ask ourselves are we doing it for the consumer or for the staff? If you are doing it for the staff, you are doing it for the wrong reason. For me, it's all about the plant labelling and I think a lot of people are looking for the inspiration. There's far too many garden centres that have too much space for A-Z and not enough space for inspiration."
- What is the BBC doing to put gardening back onto the agenda?
Adam Pasco "I cannot really comment on the TV side of things but gardening does drive the markets. It is on the agenda and the BBC probably does more than anybody else. But I don't see the driving trends being built up by the horticultural organisations. I do not think that the Plant for Life campaign is driving consumers into retail. I think there is a greater opportunity for horticulturalists to get their point across."