Retail seed sales soar

The recession has reversed the ratio of vegetable and flower seed sales, says Sally Drury.

If you haven't been selling seeds this year, then you've been missing out. "Stonking", "manic" and "massively up" are just a few of the ways seed suppliers have described business over the past 12 months. But will it continue?

Sales in the 2009 season have largely been driven by vegetable seed varieties as the attraction of growing your own pulls in more converts. With the processing of returns now well underway, all the major suppliers are expecting to finish with good figures.

"We have broken all records," confirms Suttons Seeds sales and marketing director David Arnold. "And the stars of the show - no great surprise - are vegetables."

For Kings Seeds, business has just kept going. Marketing director Tony Ward is normally organising catalogues by now, but sales have not slowed. "In July and August we were still miles up in vegetable seed sales," he confirms.

It's a similar picture at Thompson & Morgan, where UK retail sales and marketing director Neil Sharpe says: "Sales have been really good, obviously driven by vegetable seeds. Grow-your-own has been a main driver but we have also seen flower seed sales rise - although not by the same amount as vegetables."

Reversing ratios

Ten years ago the ratio of vegetable-to-flower seeds sold in the UK was approximately 30/70. Today the percentages have been reversed, as Arnold explains: "We are still processing returns but we think when they are all in, the split will be at least 70 per cent vegetables and 30 per cent flowers."

He has also noticed an increase in flower seed sales volumes, as has Ward. He says: "I think the boost of the grow-your-own vegetable market is pulling in people to grow flowers as well."

According to Arnold, good weather at the start of the season can take some credit. "I think the whole concept of growing your own produce has got hold of everybody and this year we were also blessed with good weather at the time when gardeners were looking to sow and plant," he says.

And credit goes to retailers, as Mr Fothergill's and Johnsons marketing director Ian Cross explains: "Retailers have really got behind the grow-your-own philosophy - the more places it's seen, the bigger the ranges and the more ideas out there, the more people are drawn in. It has momentum of its own."

When vegetable seed sales started to boom two or three years ago, the growth in sales was largely put down to people wanting to eat healthily and also know where their food had come from and what was in it.

"Locally produced" rather than food with associated air miles became the order of the day. Exercise gained through gardening was seen as a bonus. Now the recession and pressure on family budgets have added to the incentives.

"I think the financial situation is an element in people growing their own. It has stirred people," suggests Cross.

Ward, who has more than 30 years' experience of the seed markets, agrees. "The seed trade can do well in a recession," he says.

Continuing trend

So, with that in mind, is the trend set to continue? With some economists forecasting that Britain will be slower than the rest of Europe in coming out of recession, the thinking is that vegetable seeds will do very well again next year.

The major suppliers believe so. Ward says: "I think the trend will continue. All indications - catalogue applications and interest from new sources - are that the impetus will go on for another 12 to 18 months at least."

And at Mr Fothergill's, Cross is in similar mind: "Unemployment and pressure on money will keep people growing their own. The following year may be more of a challenge if the economy does pick up but I believe what we've had this year will follow through to the next. It has been such a good year for retailers this year, I think they will hold their position or expand for the next."

Sharpe is hoping for a season to better 2009. "Potentially, next year could better than this. There is still a real appetite for seeds and even now people are buying vegetable seeds at a reasonable rate. Early indications for the next season are good as well."

This year saw "substantial increases" in vegetable seed volume for Suttons - and the company is upping volume again for 2010.

Arnold confirms: "We are increasing our volumes again for next year - on top of this year's increases. We have been talking to a lot of garden centres over the past few weeks and they are totally convinced, as are we, that the grow-your-own trend is set to continue."

Question of stock

With the boom in seeds forecast to continue and possibly grow, the question for retailers is what to stock. In 2009 it was the traditional vegetables that did well rather than what one supplier called the "inky kinky" lines.

Varieties like MoneyMaker tomatoes - mentioned in old gardening books and bringing back memories of what "father used to grow" - have surpassed expectation, along with the standard varieties of beetroot, carrot and spring onion.

"We increased our tomato sales by nearly 40 per cent," states Arnold. "All the traditional vegetables - carrots, brassicas and salad crops - have done well but one thing that stands out more than anything is the cut-and-come-again salads.

"They have been amazingly successful this year and we now have a whole range of different ones including mixed lettuce leaves, spicy, stir fry and Italian mix."

Similarly Suttons' Speedy Veg - a range of products for cutting and eating when young - has caught people's imagination. Johnsons is expanding its Speedy Salads range and introducing mini ranges within the main ranges for next year, as well as introducing a range of well-priced, hardy varieties sourced from eastern Europe.

The idea that gardening and growing plants as well as vegetables from seed is both enjoyable and easy is catching on. Novice gardeners are now finding that they do not need two acres of land, a degree in horticulture and six months' patience in order to grow their own vegetables. But there is still room to put ideas in front of people in order to increase sales volumes.

One such idea comes from Thompson & Morgan in the form of a "Sow Now" promotion. The firm completes a small stand for the retailer and then changes it on a monthly basis according to the calendar. It pulls out from the main range and identifies what people should be sowing at that time.

"It's about educating new growers, showing them what to do and giving them reassurance that they can be successful," explains Sharpe.

Pushing forward

Next year a club-root-resistant variety of Brussels sprout is expected to be introduced by Kings Seeds. Producer as well as packer and supplier, Kings holds about 11 per cent of the market share for packet seeds and is looking to push forward in the future.

A brand new range from Thompson & Morgan, the Kew Urban Garden Collection, is expected to appeal to those looking to grow vegetables in pots, containers and small spaces.

The collection consists of 20 vegetable varieties and is already reported to be selling well to the trade.

Although not new, the seed tapes and mats range from Suttons has been expanded for 2009 and is already selling well to the trade. New varieties showing increased resistance to pests and disease have been added - along with improved information for customers to show them the advantages.

Also new from Suttons is a range of propagation items under the Sow & Grow brand. A partnership deal has been struck between Jiffy Products and Suttons for the distribution of Jiffy products in the UK and Ireland and Suttons is now expecting to launch 26 products for next year, including windowsill propagators. The range will appear in garden centres in November.

"It is a changing customer out there," suggests Arnold. "This past year has seen a lot of people switched on to gardening for the first time, but they are looking for convenience-based products that break down the mystique of growing your own. Then when they are successful they are hooked."

Retailers should not underestimate the power of growing your own, but ornamentals are not to be forgotten. All suppliers agree that flower seeds must not be marginalised in the face of the huge success of vegetable seeds. To marginalise flowers would only bring their demise.

Wildlife ranges

Following work with Butterfly World at St Albans and in association with the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust, Mr Fothergill's and Johnsons brands are taking forward their wildlife ranges, including plants attractive to bees and butterflies.

"The idea is to encourage people to think about what they are growing and what will benefit wildlife and bring bees and butterflies into the garden," says Cross.

Having enthused the public to grow vegetables and to enjoy their gardening - whether on a large plot or container scale - the next task is to keep them gardening and provide them with evermore exciting experiences. Part of that will be education. Part will be product. The retailer, as well as the supplier, has a role in that.

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