Multi-channel retailing emerged as the area where garden centres felt they may cross over most with the high-street experience.
The event took place last week at London's Kensington Roof Gardens. Delegates heard from Dobbies chief executive James Barnes, who called garden centres "the Barack Obamas of retailing" for holding their popularity in recession, and Garden Centre Group chief executive Nicholas Marshall, who attacked the DIY chain and supermarket approach while hailing garden centres' unique place in retailing. Meanwhile, general retail experts gave a broader picture of web-based trends and a slow recovery in consumer confidence.
HSBC senior economist Mark Berrisford-Smith said after "a very traditional recession", with firms making cutbacks and inventory adjustments and cancelling investment plans, "the worst is over".
He said the "service sector, powered by the British consumer, is pulling Britain's economy out of the downturn".
Future Foundation account director Pippa Goodman said Britain's economy was "recovering from dramatically and historically low levels of consumer confidence".
Goodman emphasised the growing importance of online retail and also stressed the significance of the internet's use by increasingly thrifty and discerning consumers in comparing retailers and finding the best prices.
Consumers, she said, were becoming "increasingly resourceful", with the growing popularity of online consumer reviews providing an independent voice. She said that there was a "growing volatility and disloyalty of customers" and stated that "loyalty must now be re-earned and rewarded on a daily basis".
Goodman added that 63 per cent of consumers are consciously trying to reduce consumption and 74 per cent of consumers agree that "local varieties and products should be preserved".
In a video clip, B&Q chief executive Ian Cheshire echoed Goodman's view that real product reviews are essential as customers want to understand what people think.
But during debate, Coolings chairman Paul Cooling asked whether concentrating on online took away from the garden centre experience. He said he would rather spend money on planteria staff than websites.
E-commerce expert at the Javelin Group Richard Wolff said it can be difficult to find staff to give advice in centres and that the web builds on garden centre experience so you are better informed. He said 70 per cent of customers now look online and buy in store.
Wolff said garden retail was "not an easy model" because of live/bulky products and increasing delivery costs but was a knowledge-intensive sector that is highly visual with passionate participants. He said five per cent of garden sales would be online by 2015, with 46 per cent "web to store" purchases.
HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe said the HTA's recent online research summed up the issue, adding: "We shouldn't lose sleep about not being able to get rhododendrons through letterboxes. The importance of having your product online is more important."
- See p4, p11 and p19 for more.
- Use websites to allow customers to research online, click-and-collect and influence buying decisions. Make your website part of your garden centre by being a social hub
- Cut stock levels but add value through better merchandising, service and quality
- Add value to products
- Train planteria staff
- Emphasise that plants can make a contribution to saving the planet and that the garden business is environmentally friendly.