It’s been a strange year, yet for all that an oddly exciting one when you begin to peer into the detail – a year of transition in which the garden industry has continued to adapt, albeit cautiously, to a rapidly changing retail world.
There is no doubt that the internet is steadily standing the retail industry on its head, but not necessarily in a predictable way. ‘Clicks and bricks’ has been a trend this year, as online retailers begin to understand why, how and when consumers still like to visit the high street, retail park…or garden centre.
Major garden centre operators are sharpening up their worldwide web presence and going transactional. Our garden centres have been relatively slow to embrace cyber retailing, allowing entrepreneurial web traders with little experience of the garden market to get a head start, but they’re learning fast – driven by the need to court the next generation of consumers, who will demand that the businesses vying for their loyalty are super net-friendly. Dobbies announced their new tie-up with Ocado would enable them to open an online store next year.
In garden centres across the UK, plant sales accounted for an ever declining share of turnover, while catering revenues carried on growing. Bents, who opened their first coffee shop in the 1980s, now turn over more than £6 million from 1000 covers at six locations around the centre. New catering facilities swallowed up massive percentages of garden centre development budgets in 2017. For the new Rosebourne group, which announced during the year that it will open its second site at Aldermaston near Reading in Autumn 2018, catering and food sales are as much part of it raison d’etre as the gardening element…if not more so.
However, the precarious balance between plants-and-gardening and gifts-and-leisure has clearly been exercising the minds of garden centre top brass through the year.
Centres like Notcutts and Coolings demonstrated that ultimate plant quality and horticultural expertise continue to be eminently saleable commodities. And in the autumn, Nicholas Marshall, whose adventures as the new CEO at Dobbies took up many column inches during the year, announced that his new strategy for the chain would put the focus back on plant sales, which he would like to see doubled.
Meanwhile, over at Wyevale Garden Centres , CEO Roger McLaughlan announced a new business strategy designed to shore up the 149-centre group’s finances after 2016’s £122.4m losses and what was described as an unsustainable growth strategy (mainly acquisition-driven). With refinancing in place, he wants to deliver a more compelling customer proposition and experience, invest in people, upgrade systems and improve the supply chain process. If that works, observers believe, Guy Hands at parent company Terra Firma will consider putting WGC back on the market.
With WGC’s wings clipped, few major independents changed hands in 2017 and many were happy to invest in a retail sector widely admired for its resilience in a struggling economy. Woodborough Garden Centre in Wiltshire became the Whitehall group’s third outlet; the Squires group and Groves at Bridport anounced ambitious plans for new restuarants; and in Northern Ireland, Hillmount added a third centre as it revealed plans to open a new store in an old church at Ards. Significant investment announced by the British Garden Centres Group for its East Durham GC at Easington could see the workforce there grow from 10 to 300. In Scotland, Caulders acquired its fifth centre, at Cupar.
On the supplier front, the biggest news of the year was undoubtedly the decision by Scotts to divest its international businesses, which includes Miracle-Gro in the UK. The news that the businesses had been delivered into the well-capitalised hands of Exponent Private Equity LLP was greeted with relief - we should never underestimate just how important the Miracle-Gro brand has been to the UK’s gardening market since Horace Hagedorn brought it here in the 90s, despite subsequent hiccups. Its consistent annual spend on TV advertising campaigns did much to drive footfall and develop sales in garden centres, DIY chains and the high street.
Barbecue specialists Weber aimed to do much the same for the al fresco dining market with a seven-figure TV ad spend over the summer.
Elsewhere on the supply side, Smart Garden Products demonstrated its hunger for growth under the guidance of Paris Natar by investing £20m in its new Eureka building at Peterborough, designed with a capacity for 40,000 pallets as the company eyes up an eventual turnover of £100m-plus.
Not to be outdone, Natar’s old company, Gardman (also based at Peterbough) completed its new purpose-built distribution centre at Daventry, breaking long-established links with its previous home at Spalding and promising a better service from a modern, more centralised operation.
The transformation of wholesale distribution in the garden industry, forced by the collapse of Solus, has seen both Stax and Decco make strong gains. Stax’s latest win saw them pick up three of EP Barrus’s garden brands – Wolf, Wilkinson Sword and Town & Country (Barrus’s summer acquisition). As if by divine balancing, Decco announced it had done a deal with Town & Country arch rival Briers.
While we’re on the subject of distribution, SBM Life Science, now owners of the former Bayer garden products brands, agreed to market the long-established MaxiCrop brand of seaweed-based growth stimulants in the UK. The growing popularity of seaweed-derived products (now sold by Westland, Mr Fothergill’s and others) is evidence of a swing towards ‘natural’ solutions. Westland, Miracle-Gro and SBM all embraced this trend during the year.
The year’s wheeling and dealing also feartured diversification; seedsmen Mr Fothergill’s acquired the respected Darlac garden tools buisness, which will undoubtedly benefit from Mr F’s distribution network and marketing strength.
Garden centres who do well with chimenea sales will know how much this market niche owes to pioneering brothers John and Simon Goodwin who, aged 21 and 22, set up La Hacienda in 1989 and sold it this summer for $11m to the Griffon Corporation of the US.
One of 2017’s most alarming headlines featured the threat to our gardens and nursery industry posed by the potential spread of the deadly bacterial plant disease xylella fastidiosa, for which there is as yet no known treatment. Efforts designed to prevent it from reaching these shores were redoubled, with the HTA launching a major information campaign to help all growers and importers of plants to put detailed precautions in place. The penalty for not being totally aware of the provenance of every plant you buy could well be horticultural decimation. You have been warned.
The industry looked on with interest as Aussie operators Wesfarmers began to transpose its Bunnings Warehouse template on a pilot group of Homebase stores, having trumpeted gardening as a prime element of the new format. The cost of assimilating Homebase, re-positioning product categories and launching the price-fighting Bunnings brand in a tight market resulted in big UK and Ireland losses early in thye year and a warning that profitabilty could be a long haul.
Once again, the garden industry showed itself to be a formidable charity supporter.. The organisers of Garden Re-Leaf Day said the annual spring fund-raiserand PR campaign had rasised more than half a million pounds for Greenfingers since the inaugural event in 2012.
Notable individual exploits included a courageous aercfraft wing-walk by Haskins garden centre group buying director Conna Powles, raising £6,200.
No review of the year is complete without a mention of Glee. The 2017 edition garnered plaudits from visitors and exhibitors alike, with many proclaiming it to be the best for years. The new Retail Lab feature was a resounding hit. As the show closed, we learned that it is to re-locate to different halls in 2018, when there will also be a mini-Glee at February’s Spring Fair.
The industry lost two respected names during the year.
Stephen Pickering, who worked for Wyevale Garden Centres at York from 1994 until his retirement in 2012, died aged 70 after a six-year battler with cancer. He was one of the first employees at Challis of York in 1964 and was known throughout his career as “Steve from Challises”.
Alistair Lorimer, who died during the summer, had also battled cancer. A highlight of his 30-plus years in the garden centre and plants industry was his contribution to the development of the award-winning Blooms Bicester Avenue project. He later successfully turned his hand to consultancy.
Story reproduced from the December 2017/January 2018 edition of GTN.