In May, we reported that this was why hardy stock nurseries and their retailer customers were feeling despondent ('Hardy nursery stock - Challenging sales conditions'). It will be no surprise that the latest figures show May and June were no better for the garden industry. According to the August issue of the HTA’s Market Update, garden centre sales for the year to the end of June were down 11 per cent and May sales were down by eight per cent.
But what about now? Did the sporting highlights of the summer — Andrew Murray competing in the final at Wimbledon, Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France and, of course, the Olympics — help raise the mood sufficiently for consumers to buy? June sales were three per cent up, but is this a positive blip, or are we climbing out of the abyss?
HTA director of marketing Andrew Maxted insists that the core garden market is resilient. "It shows every sign of wanting to take advantage of the recent improvement in the weather. The season isn’t over for many just yet."
Despite the latest report from the HTA focusing on retail opportunities with older and keener gardening consumers in mind, Maxted believes the younger audience is there for the taking.
"The narrowing gap between inflation and earnings should help attract younger gardeners back into the market, and the HTA’s new ‘Plan it, Plant it this Autumn’ PR campaign (see box, opposite page) is designed to build on this," he says.
Bransford Webbs managing director Geoff Caesar says when the sun came out in the third week of July, it was just simply too late. "We all had such great expectations at the beginning of the season, following two or three good springs for sales," he adds.
He now believes that some businesses will not survive, unless autumn sales manage to turn around the weaker ones. "We have all been working towards being lean over the past few years, which is important, but when you are hit hard like this, there is little left for you to cut," he explains.
"If they are to survive, nurseries will have to be very careful over the next year. They’ll have to be conservative with a small ‘c’. I don’t think there will be a reining in of the variety and diversity of plant offering, but volume is likely to suffer and this could lead to some availability problems next year."
Caesar says the types of plants that sold reasonably well throughout the summer were those in flower. "Because consumers weren’t buying, retail customers only went for the plants they knew they could shift through impulse sales. These were more or less as we would have expected."
However, he adds: "What we didn’t get were sales of one-litre perennials. By the time the weather improved, their flowering season was over. Thousands of perfectly saleable plants will now go to waste. They cannot be grown on as there is no market for large — up to five-litre — perennials."
According to Essex-based online garden centre Gardening Express owner Chris Bonnett: "As soon as the water companies started placing restrictions on water use, the decline in sales began. Customers got scared. They didn’t want to spend on plants that they’d be unable to water, so decided not to bother."
He adds: "The two months of rain that then followed came as great timing for the water companies, but terrible for garden retailers. Now the season is pretty much over." Despite this, Bonnett expects to see his turnover increase this year. He has stayed lean by offering discounts by employing a high-volume sales strategy.
"Unlike traditional garden centres and nurseries I’ve been able to quickly adapt to the changing market," he says. "This year I’ve been discounting for volume and have run various exclusive promotions targeted at our existing customer base. My overheads are lower, too.
Although I have my 1.6ha nursery, I don’t need a shop, which makes a huge difference."
At Bransford Webbs, Caesar is now looking to maximise sales of the typical plants for the autumn market. "Shrubby lines, with a longer shelf life, will be our focus for the next few months," he said. "Autumn colour shrubs and evergreens are the staple for this time of year. They tend to be a less volatile sector than spring and summer plants, but with this year we will just have to wait and see."
Buckingham Garden Centre & Nurseries publicity manager Chris Day says: "Because of low spring sales we have a large volume of plants to sell, and for most of the summer so far it has only been promotional plants that have done well. The holiday season has not fully kicked in for us yet; we hope that it will encourage more sales, but there is no guarantee."
According to Day, the company, which includes a nationwide mail-order business for bare-rooted hedging plants and young trees, has had a surprising success so far this year with a few of its hedging lines. "We sold out of holly and box," he says. "This was unexpected, and caused a bit of a problem because they were contract grown."
He adds: "At the moment we can’t sell enough of the dinner-plate dahlias and some high-ticket items. But it is too early for shrub sales to pick up. People won’t get in the mindset for shrub planting until autumn."
When a season has been tough like this, nursery stock producers need to be proactive and innovative. Woking Nurseries, a group of 17 businesses, has done this by relaunching its website with a new "one click" stock enquiry capability. It was initially prompted to revamp the website following the closure of the Woking Nursery Show last year, but it hopes that the move will enable member nurseries to catch up on sales following this year’s poor weather.
Committee chairman Colin Woodlark says: "Buyers can now either make an enquiry that will go to each nursery, or go direct to the individual nurseries. This will help us to promote the nurseries and it will keep smaller growers in the framework." In the future, he adds that he would like to explore linking up transport across the group and allow more nurseries in the area to join.