Worst is over, say retail experts at HTA's Garden Futures conference

Conference speakers at the HTA's Garden Futures event from outside the garden industry said the worst is over in retail and gave garden centres, growers and suppliers hope for the future.

Retail Week editor Tim Danaher gave an overview of how the retail sector as a whole fared in the past year, noting that much of the time it had been a case of the "survival of the fittest", with many businesses which had not been doing well in any case, such as Woolworths, going under. He said both fashion and horticulture had benefited from the year's weather following the standard seasonal patterns relatively closely and that one benefit of the economic downturn was that there had actually been an increase in the quality of staff entering . He also said that the capitalising on growing multi-channel sales (in particular online retail) and diversifying businesses' risks into other markets by pursuing international growth may be key to beating the economic downturn. He added that although the situation had stabilised, it may get worse before it gets better and that "the best retailers will survive".

Pippa Goodman, account director of the Future Foundation, said Britain's economy was "recovering from dramatically and historically low levels of consumer confidence". She said there were some "green shoots" showing through but added that there were also "dark clouds".

She emphasised the growing importance of online retail and also stressed the significance of the use of the internet by increasingly thrifty and discerning consumers in comparing retailers and finding the best prices. Consumers, she said, were becoming "increasingly resourceful", with the growing popularity of online consumer reviews providing them a voice well heeded. She said that there was a "growing volatility and disloyalty of customers" and stated that "loyalty must now be re-earned and rewarded on a daily basis".

Goodman added that 63% of consumers are consciously trying to reduce consumption and 74% of consumers agree that local varieties and products should be preserved.

Mark Berrisford-Smith, senior economist at HSBC, followed with a look at the economy during 2009 with a view to predicting its future performance. It had been, he said, "the biggest downturn in the world economy since World War Two." But he said all G7 economies with the exception of Italy were expected to grow in the third quarter. "The big heyday for outsourcing jobs and manufacturing," he said, "was over", adding that "unfettered globalisation is at an end."

It had been, he said, "a very traditional recession", with firms making cutbacks and inventory adjustments, and cancelling investment plans. He said that "the worst is now over" and that the "service sector, powered by the British consumer, is pulling Britain's economy out of the downturn". He added that it had not been "Armageddon on the High Street" as feared and that "the recession has probably ended but the recovery will be long and fragile, and we do not yet know the endgame". He finished by saying that the Government was not going to contribute to economic growth in the way that it had, and that ahead lay a "test of entrepreneurial and innovative mettle" to be passed if a "sluggish recovery" is to be avoided.


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