Last month's British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) conference (22 January) heard the view from over the pond about the way the bedding market is going.
US-based Ball Horticultural Company senior technical and research manager Will Healy said the bedding industry has "morphed" over the past 20 years, taking the independent garden centre and grocer markets further apart than ever.
The 20-year-plus veteran of the industry pointed out that the market in the USA has "flipped" so independent garden centres are now "experiences" and the mass-market grocers are the places to go for "interesting plants" because they have "morphed into impulse spaces".
Hard goods in independents are now owned by the supplier, not the retailer, and retailers are "basically just renting space in their 'experience' store", Healy explained.
He said US grocers want to sell plants that die in a week because customers care more about colour than longevity and in some cases growers are no longer selling to retailers. "Merchandisers are selling to retailers" because they are "better at data and analysing trends", said Healey.
The age of the monoculture nursery, as popularised by the Dutch, is over and more diversity is required by retailers, he added.
Some of what Healy said mirrored US GrowerTalks editor Chris Beytes' speech to the HTA seasonal plant group last November. Beytes said a big factor in the US industry is fewer grower/suppliers being able to keep up with big-box demands - such as using shipping racks and pay by scan when sold to the end customer - and retailer demands that you service plants sold in-store.
Healy and Beytes both pointed out that Walmart recently dropped from 22 to just 15 suppliers. Both of them said many big retailers want suppliers who can do everything. In the UK Butters and Coletta & Tyson perform this role.
Beytes added: "In the end, any grower who wants to compete with the US chain store has to be brilliant at all aspects of business as well as being a good grower."
Big-box store Home Depot demands service for plants supplied, said Beytes, while Lowe's uses a third party to do the same job, for which the grower pays.
Healy said nurseries must grow a bigger range if they want to be successful but warned that they must be ruthless in cutting out the "problem child" varieties. If they do not get established within three years of launch, they must go, he added.
Healy said growers must replace the bottom 10 per cent of their varieties annually if they fail to sell through 99 per cent.
HTA Nursery Business Improvement Scheme manager Will George said: "We have seen more profit generated by cost-cutting and controlling costs than increasing production, which has actually decreased."
Growing smarter rather than growing more is the way forward, according to UK growers at the BPOA event, with many of their thoughts backing up Healy's US view.
UK bedding supply - Different approaches pay off for WD Smith and Hills
Two directors of fourth-generation nurseries showed how different approaches are working for them, in a presentation at the British Protected Ornamentals Association conference.
Mike Smith, director at bedding grower WD Smith, said no longer supplying Homebase and concentrating on 250 garden centres with speculatively grown plants and its own Meadowcroft garden centre in Essex has paid off since 1999.
By contrast, Greg Hill, director at pot-plant grower Hills, said the firm is now supplying 85,000 indoor plants a week to four supermarkets with no speculative growing. Gartplan software is used to programme crops and maximise space.
Smith said his "Mikesplan" spreadsheets help to map out his father Roland's knowledge, which was "all in his head". He added that the monocrop idea "has gone completely" and he grows a "wide diversity" of crops. Hills grows a narrower range, including Phalaenopsis and poinsettia.
Hill said only one new plant goes into his programme every three years from 10-15 a year presented to supermarkets, while Smith changes the bottom 10 per cent of his programme annually. Smith said half his production is between April and Derby day in June but he supplies for 52 weeks. Hill said his market is less weather-orientated.
Hill said most of his waste is salesrather than production-driven and added that promotions "don't really work" because of the "pain of cost negotiation" with customers. He said getting supermarkets to have his plants in more stores is the way to growth. One in 300 supermarket customers buys into the category.