Garden Centre Association chief executive, Peter Burks, writes: The first few weeks of the new year always give me a great buzz, as we say goodbye to Christmas with all the colour and sparkle that it brings and begin our return to gardening.
The Christmas displays completely take over and transform the shop floor of our members’ garden centres, both inside and out. The last few months of every year are filled with quite stunning arrays of visual merchandising.
But as we progress through January and February it is always a great feeling to see the spring bulbs, seed potatoes, propagators, seed trays etc. begin to reappear and start to fill customers’ baskets and trolleys. It confirms both the cyclical nature of our business and the fact that each season is so different from a retailing perspective.
But will this year be the same as last? What do we think the future might look like?
I do hear a general optimistic vibe as I visit our Garden Centre Association members, but then aren’t all of us gardeners an optimistic bunch, always thinking, maybe hoping, that the next year will be better than the last.
However, I do think that there are a good number of reasons to be optimistic about what lies ahead for our industry. We all know that the one crucial factor that is needed for us to do well is the weather, over which we have no say or control. Our last decent spring weather was in 2020, so it may be time for something certainly a bit better than last year. Then there’s general consumer confidence that has ticked up 20 points since this time last year according to the Horticultural Trades Association’s (HTA) index.
Consumers have never saved as much as they are sitting on at the moment. Clearly intended to help them out if things get a lot tougher in the general economy, but also there to be spent if we can tempt them.
Garden centres are so well positioned to benefit from the growing awareness of the impact of gardens and green spaces on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. This is not a topic that is going to wane any time soon, it, and its many facets, are going to keep growing and developing.
Plants and gardens are good for people, our wildlife and the world’s future. Garden centres also do so much for their local communities that bind them to their customer base in a way most other trades cannot, guaranteeing a significant proportion of our annual trade.
Our restaurants, food halls and farm shops have had a fantastic past 12 months, which is again good news on many fronts. Even as I write this, in a very chilly January, the garden centres I visit have full car parks, all attracted to the food-offering. If people don’t think of us, then we will never get them to visit, but visit they are in ever increasing numbers giving opportunities to sell all our other products.
I have already mentioned the outstanding visual merchandising that is evident in every garden centre during the run up to Christmas, but this is something that the industry now excels at and significantly out-performs the high street. This attracts new customers at Christmas time in the form of young families and increases the number of visits our regular customers make during the year.
The challenges being thrown at us by the increasing cost base, particularly the impending rise in the minimum wage in April, will get our very resilient industry coming up with solutions that can only make us stronger. Whether that will include more use of Artificial Intelligence; different working practices to cope with the huge seasonal fluctuations we have in our trade; further development of our sourcing to reduce the reliance on global shipping; and developing our environmental policies; I know our industry will be even stronger in 12 months’ time.
The GCA represents more than 200 garden centres nationwide. For further information, please visit www.gca.org.uk.