Garden retailing is often said to be part of the fashion industry, but luckily its fortunes this year have been very different from those of the rag trade.
The downturn was supposed to mean customers tightening their belts and closing their purses — and the latest fashion retail data appears to show just that.
Verdict Research forecasts a decline in the sector of over five per cent across Europe, making it "one of the worst years for the clothing sector on record", with only low-cost retailers such as Primark seeing any growth.
Garden retail, on the other hand, has held up well, with the latest Garden Centre Association (GCA) figures showing double-digit rises in sales at smaller garden centres in particular. What has gone right?
The weather has certainly played its part, with a cold start giving way to sunshine across much of the country during the key spring sales windows, though this was checked by a wet July.
Certainly the grow-your-own trend has also done much to drive footfall to garden centres, as managers at a Garden Retail-hosted seminar at last week's Glee trade show were quick to point out.
According to Webbs chief executive officer Boyd Douglas-Davies: "Grow-your-own has been vital and it has a good few years to go. People are going into it for lots of different reasons, which will still be valid in a few years' time. It's up to us to help them be successful."
Garden & Leisure Group retail director Carol Paris added: "There have been some good inventions and there are many more solutions for people who want to grow their own. It's for us to make sure they also have all the information they need."
But this prompts the question of why, given the popularity of grow-your-own and gardening more generally, the market has not been gobbled up by horticultural equivalents of Primark.
According to HTA retail committee chairman and Scotsdales Garden Centre director Caroline Owen: "A strong plant offer is what sets us apart from the high street."
Paris agrees. "Quality of plants is essential," she says. "People come for a day out, they come to be entertained. We don't sell anything that anybody needs — we are selling an experience. It's key to have demonstrations."
Douglas-Davies says that differentiation is vital: "Somebody will always be cheaper than you. But if you look at the country's top 12 garden centres, every one is different. They are all making themselves stand out as the place to go."
Owen, meanwhile, puts a premium on customer service. "Every garden centre is a team, right down to the person who works on a Saturday morning — everyone needs to understand the business," she says.
"Our success is down to the fact that we have a very strong plant manager.
"Especially now, with this economic climate, people are more valuable than ever. That's where the '10ft rule' comes in — when people are within 10ft (3m), you should be engaging with them and helping them. Customers come to deal with people and independents are especially good at that. It's something that multiples will always struggle to replicate."
HTA marketing director Andrew Maxted explains why the he thinks price-cutting has not been the right way for garden centres to address the downturn. "Garden centres will, quite rightly, trade on the added-value and the after-care they offer," he says.
"If everyone is buying on price then the market share of the discounters should have rocketed, but that hasn't happened. What has happened is that the customer is becoming more market-literate and is swayed by value rather than price."
Paris adds: "Many things won't stand price increases so you have to accept that and find those that can. That is the case with plants because customers don't know how much the plant is worth. Plants are still fantastic value."
The appearance of supermarket chain Lidl at flower shows in Shrewsbury and Southport in August appeared to be a warning shot for garden retailers from the discount retail sector.
Lidl has grown to 530 stores since the German discount chain first arrived in the UK in 1994. According to Lidl representative Marco Ivone: "We are still expanding — it hasn't levelled off by any means."
Among recent in-store offers have been an autumn perennials range, including Sedum, Luzula, Heuchera and Ajuga in 10.5cm to 11.5cm pots for £1.29 each; six-packs of hedging like Buxus, Cotoneaster and Hebe for £3.99; and a five-litre Hydrangea macrophylla for £7.49.
"We do different garden topics in spring, summer and autumn, but have plants most of the year round," says Ivone. "We are seeing higher footfall with the downturn, although customers are not compromising on quality."
Fellow discounter Aldi also carries seasonal gardening lines, though few plants as yet. The company, which is also headquartered in Germany, recently opened its 400th UK store and, according to its website, aims to expand to 1,500 outlets "within the coming years".
According to retail consultant John Stanley: "The UK has been lucky in that it has not so far had the challenge that countries like Australia and New Zealand have had, where discount plant retailers have been around for many years.
"In the recession, they have actually weathered the storm less successfully than other plant retailers. They will be a threat to independent garden centres that do not have high standards of retailing and plant knowledge. A professionally operated retail store should not consider them a threat."
BY LUCK OR DESIGN?
Peter Self, managing director, Whitehall Garden Centres, Wiltshire and Bristol "Sales at our two garden centres are up 13 per cent this year, and that's largely on core gardening — plants, compost, grow-your-own. But it's been a year of extremes. We were 50 per cent down in February due to the snow, then had a tremendous March and April.
"We have been more competitive with our promotions, of which we've done hundreds, mainly multi-buys, and that will continue next year. Being part of the Tillington buying group gives us strength in buying — it's made us as competitive as anyone.
"We also have the range of stock that customers want and which they won't find on the high street."
Jolyon Martin, managing director, Chessington Garden Centre, Surrey "We're up eight per cent, which is in line with the GCA average, though we may slip back in the run up to Christmas as we're not really geared up for it.
"The big driver this year has been the weather, though grow-your-own has also helped. Where the downturn has had
an effect is on the higher-value items, such as furniture and paving — we have had to rethink how we buy these to stay competitive.
"Some of the things that commentators are now suggesting for garden centres are things we've always done. We're a family-run company that's been part of the community for 40 years."
Caroline Palmer, managing director, Palmers Garden Centre, Leicester "We haven't grown this year, but we're quite pleased to have stayed the same considering we had some horrendous roadworks against us during March, April and May and then no sustained period of good weather after that.
"With the recession, customers have been discerning and have wanted to spend wisely. We have cut some costs
and marketed the garden centre with offers such as ‘bounceback' vouchers, which give you an incentive such as a free cup of coffee if you come back.
"You need to set yourself apart from the DIY chains and other retailers with your level of knowledge and service."
Additional reporting by Jack Sidders