British growers were out in force at the HTA National Plant Show (25-26 June) looking to sell plants to the garden centre market. Most supply nationwide and they were looking for larger retailer orders.
Plant buyers from Waitrose, Homebase, Garden Centre Group (GCG), Dobbies, Notcutts, Hillier and other groups and independents attended the event, held at Stoneleigh Park, looking to talk to old and new suppliers about contracts.
Coventry bedding grower Baginton Nurseries was at the show having written to its retail customers to tell them that it will no longer be growing speculatively. Owner Will Lamb insists that reducing risk is essential due to reduced margins.
The economy and weather have combined to leave him no option but to cut production by half and concentrate on contracts that are set in stone with local authorities and subcontractors.
The news came as garden writer Peter Seabrook highlighted the set contracts Dutch growers enjoy with their retail customers (HW, 5 July). The retailer has to pay in seven days after delivery or face interest on overdue accounts. This is a far cry from the UK system, which has gone too far to favour retailers, says Seabrook.
Blue Ribbon was pictured dumping thousands of bedding plants in skips this spring after cold weather resulted in cancelled orders. The grower is one of a long list that has been hit by the way the market works.
Sales manager Mariska De Wolde says: "In Holland, if you have a contract you can't get out of it. You have to pay if you take it or not. But in England it's different. It would be good for growers, of course. It's always difficult for the growers to pick up the pieces in the end."
She adds that speaking with customers to know exactly what they want is the way forward, but still "you have to take your chance".
Earlier this year, GCG chairman Stephen Murphy told HW: "We're not taking stock in and are pushing back to the supply chain, which is why it's going to be a difficult year for growers."
Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker says independents have a much better relationship with growers because "we talk".
"The difference between us and multiples is they say it's not our problem when plants aren't selling because the weather is bad while we're ringing our growers and saying: 'It's tough out there, let's do a two-for-one,' he points out. "They (the multiples) say: 'It's a poor season and we can't afford to take a hit so you will.' We're in two completely different types of retailing."
At the HTA National Plant Show, bedding grower Roundstone announced that it had bought New Place Nurseries to add to 2011's purchase of New Forest Plants. This diversification away from supplying a narrow range of plants to a small number of customers reflects increasing efforts being made by the industry to spread risk.
HTA operations manager Martin Simmons says there is a lot of talk in seasonal plant and retail supplier groups about supply-chain issues. "Given two very poor years in plant sales, seasonal plant growers suffered quite badly in terms of getting retailers to take plants because demand wasn't there.
"Supply chain is a really tricky one. To get retailers to sign up to anything is unlikely. Growers are in a fairly unique situation, which has existed in the UK market forever where a lot of product is produced on the indication of what they might want but no obligation. It's become the accepted norm between retailers and growers."
He adds that growers and retailers with long-term relationships are sharing more data to minimise losses when the season is bad. An HTA Seasonal Plant Focus event on 21 November will discuss these relationships.
A British Protected Ornamentals Association workshop being held at Stoneleigh Park on 9 October will focus on how growers can negotiate more effectively with retailers.
The HTA has also been working on giving planteria managers electronic point-of-sale advice on what actually sells in today's tighter spring market, with autumn sales not what they were - an area where they could learn a lesson from multiples.
Grower views: contract growing or speculative growing?
Bedding supplier to multiples and independents - Paul Brooking, Quality Ornamentals
"It's down to the individual businesses. We've had a mix for years, some contract and other free stock. Local authority is a real order. But garden centres can only react to the weather, so growers react to the weather. This is a living product that the consumer wants when the weather is good. There's little you can do but react to that demand. If the public isn't buying, there's little garden centres can do to stimulate demand. Speculative growing is risky and expensive. But when the weather has been with us there's been good demand and there's no reason to change that for the next 12 months."
Bedding supplier to independents - Mike Smith, WD Smith & Son
"We're comfortable with growing speculatively but do that with a lot of historical data and experience. We're not comfortable with contract growing. If the weather is not right, plants are better off on our nursery than at the garden centre where they will deteriorate quicker. We grow for an average year and that's how it's worked out. In 2014, we'll grow the same amount. Most people plant once a year, but in 2012 they didn't plant at all."