Preview 2009: Garden retail

Centres hope strong grow-your-own trend will balance weaker sales

Sales of high-priced manufactured goods are expected to fall over the next year, according to garden retailers. But garden centres believe that this could be partially off-set by a rise in grow-your-own edible produce.

Owner Martin Davies of Raglan Garden Centre, Monmouthshire, is chairman of the Garden Centres Association (GCA). He told HW: "We recognise that the early part of 2009 is likely to be very difficult. But we feel that most garden centres will survive."

He said that sales of higher-priced items had fallen during 2008 and he believed that the more expensive furniture items would be slow movers. "We're not buying as much teak or cold granite furniture as we were last year," he said. He also pointed out that sales of conservatories, barbecues and whirlpool spas were starting to fall significantly.

However, he said that there would always be a demand for high-quality, innovative products. "At the moment we have some resin chairs, which have a woven appearance. It costs around £1,000 for a table and six chairs, but sales are still brisk," he said.

HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe said: "The industry needs to make the most of the advantage it has as a place that helps you get into the garden during depressing times. Retailers need to monitor costs and keep an eye on cashflow. Banks are still generally supporting garden retailers but we can't take that for granted. The prospects are good if the sun shines at the right times though I agree that big ticket items will be affected. Times will be tough. It could be sales are down and businesses need to be prepared to take a hit. Garden centres will be addressing head count too."

Managing director Caroline Owen of Scotsdales Garden Centre, in Cambridge, said that there was increased interest in grow-your-own products. The centre was not just stocking up on seeds, but also on a variety of planters. "We're stocking a new product by Burgon & Ball, which effectively is a grow-bag with a wicker surround."

She said firms such as Scotts Miracle-Gro were putting out new ranges of pots, suitable for growing potatoes, tomatoes and strawberry plants.

Owen added that there was increased interest in some niche products such as clothing. "We're stocking a large variety of wellies, with bright colours and even with fake diamonds. We believe that clothing will be a growth area."

Like many in the industry, Owen believes a good spring will be essential for the financial fortunes of operators.

Worcestershire-based Webbs chief executive Boyd Douglas-Davies suggested that 2009 would be an "exciting year". "People who want an easy life won't get it," he said.

He added that people might see the garden as a place to escape from the brutal economic realities: "The garden will be appreciated as a little haven away from the outside world."

He suggested that 2009 could be "the best spring in a decade".

Although the take-over frenzy, which has characterised the past few years, may have subsided, there are still plenty of people interested in buying garden centres. Director Mike Gilbert of estate agent Hammond Phillips, said: "There will always be people prepared to buy. Garden centres are asset-backed purchases and banks are always keen to lend on asset-backed sites."

He added that "a bit of froth may have gone off the market" but felt that prices were relatively stable, and pointed out that some large companies, such as Dobbies, were still looking for new sites.

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