Former Garden Centre Association (GCA) chairman Guy Topping has told the GCA Conference (26-29 January) that transactional websites are not the way ahead for garden centres.
The Blackpool conference featured PWC retail consultant David Oliver, who develops multichannel for retailers. He forecast that online retail sales will rise to 16 per cent by 2018, from two per cent in 2003, but said the DIY sector is a "laggard". He added that shoppers are rushing online because of "price and convenience".
But Barton Grange managing director Topping, billed as the "Lancashire luddite", pointed out that many items are more expensive online, particularly plants. He said the "problem" is commodity and branded lines where centres get undercut.
Oliver said margin will be driven down by online sellers on commodity products that are easily price comparable. He recommended avoiding them or giving "John Lewis service". Retailers are investing more in their own brand because people buy undifferentiated branded product online, he added.
Topping said garden centres are small retailers so they are limited in what they can sell online, although unique products such as ice rinks or grotto tickets "can easily sell at full price". Start-up web costs "are one of the many reasons not to do it".
Garden Industry Manufacturers Association director Neil Gow suggested that manufacturers should sell product online and sell for garden centre collection. But Topping said that is "fraught with difficulty of the supplier selling something and expecting the garden centre to have it in stock".
He added: "Manufacturers should spend more on helping in-store sales by 10 per cent. We should be focusing on what we do in store better instead of chasing the Holy Grail 10 per cent out in the ether somewhere."
But Topping is looking to sell events and gift vouchers online and plans to revamp his website to make it more "alive" and less "static and text heavy".
Facts and figures Latest shopping trends
Garden furniture spend at "e-tailers": 17% (Lofa)
Garden product spending online: 10% (Mintel)
Town centres' retail sales level 2003-18: 47-35% (Mori)
Online 2003-18: 2-16% (Mori)
PWC consultant David Oliver said online sales are not about retail growth but "channel shift" from town centres to online, and websites drive traffic to stores more than to buy online.
Barton Grange managing director Guy Topping said: "Shopping has gone from the town centre in the main. Local town centres are dreadful places full of empty stores, betting shops and charity shops.
"Town centres have to become residential leisure places to go to eat and wander around. To save the high street is ludicrous.
"Most garden centres are becoming leisure destinations. What's in stock is not that important. People are coming and impulse shopping."