Last week we asked garden centres what their plans were for getting back to business with particular reference to policies for staff safety, and we also asked for feedback on how they would welcome reps calling on them when they re-open...
We started by asking Mike Burks, The Gardens Group and current GCA Chairman if they had been able to maintain their famous twice daily staff tea breaks outside in the planteria: "Yes, the famous tea break is alive and kicking - we're just spread out over a wider area!
“We have been re-organising the sites as per the HTA guidelines, which of course the GCA have been working on by heavily liaising with the HTA.
“We have involved the teams at all stages and have had regular discussions and have incorporated everyone's ideas.
“We had a work party on a couple of evenings and then all (unfurloughed) staff came in on Saturday to help with the last push in re-organising. They then posed as customers and we tested the one way systems and the till are to see how our modifications worked. This was hugely useful.
“The things we will be doing is meeting and greeting at the front of the centre and also publishing and handing our plan of the site and encouraging customers to plan their shopping list in the correct order.
“It just won't be possible to have reps call in until the restrictions ease. It will all have to be done by phone or email
“It will be re-inventing the business again and we will have got some things wrong but it’s not for the want of thought.”
Gerald Ingram, Planters said: “All three centres have had a nearly full compliment of staff in for this week. We had hoped we might be allowed to open this weekend but that is fading.
“We will allow 60 in when we re-open but review it quickly depending on the feel of the store. The key will be getting people through the tills as quickly as possible.
“Our plan would be to see Reps if they have an appointment. It will be easier to check stock if they do come in and as I suspect it’s going to busy. We will need all the help we can get! If I can till train a rep then we would do that too!”
James Debbage, Green Pastures in Norfolk reminded us that he had set up the restaurant dining area as an extra packing area for customer orders to give staff more staff to work apart from each other.
“Garden Centre orders are still very full-on! They are naturally switching from being very compost and perennial oriented to bedding and basket plants as one would expect. As we're loading more higher value nursery stock onto our website that's been selling well too.
“Food deliveries have definitely subsided now that people are going back to supermarkets / or shopping online. We all hoped that "supporting local" would stick a lot more when it came to buying food but sadly this doesn't appear to be the case with most people now. We can’t complain too much though because our hands are more than full with garden centre deliveries and on-site farm shop sales are still very buoyant.”
Gary Carvasso, Coolings said: “We will follow the HTA advice.
“Everyone is now focussed on online sales so physically opening will not be without its operational challenges, however it will be very welcome!
“We are happy to see reps as we have plenty of meeting rooms that allow us to maintain 2m distancing.
“In terms of merchandisers we use our own team and are considering opening an hour later and flexing hours to restock as much as we can before the public arrive.
“Till/reception area screens are being installed as we speak with more PPE arriving shortly.
“We are increasing our home delivery capacity considerably this week as online will be such a large part of life until a vaccine is found. Online has been a real help in clearing space on the nurseries of plants that would have rotted, we will be so happy to see people browsing the sites once more.”
Alan Roper, Blue Diamond told us: “We are currently pulling together our social distancing protocols for implementation once opened. To include screens at till.
“One option is to count customers in and out so you have a constant level of customers in store that can ensure they are all able to maintain a 2m distance.”
Kati Taylor, Fron Goch commented on the situation: “It is incredibly challenging and it seems everyone's personal experience of the pandemic varies dramatically, which in itself is hard to comprehend.
“Since lock down began we have retained a small hardworking team enabling us to operate a delivery and more recently, 'click and collect' service for the local community. Continuing to offer these services throughout, has maintained a level of energy within the business and enable us to connect with our customers while isolating. Certainly, in the first few weeks of uncertainty we experienced a dramatic increase in customer interaction on our social media platforms which helped guide us to what the need of the customers were. Simply interacting with customers this way, many of whom had been regularly visitors of ours prior to lock down has been vital to maintaining contact and gauging public reaction throughout the pandemic.
“As the situation has evolved, so have our working methods and procedures. Using guides from the HTA, government website and crucially looking at how other businesses that have been operating throughout the situation, supermarkets, convenience stores, DIY stores etc... How have they implemented and advertised the measures and reactions to these has proved invaluable over the last two months. It is clear that this is new norm and we need to engage and induct the team upon returning to work, reassuring them that safety within the workplace is priority.
“Our provisional safe practice guides for the team and customers will evolve as more guidance comes from the government over the next few weeks and we are able to open to the public. As per the supermarkets and DIY stores, the social distancing procedures will need to begin in the car park. Limiting customer numbers into the centre. Providing provisions for sanitising stations at key points throughout the centre. Adapting the flow to one way with social distancing tape, floor markers, POS throughout the centre. Minimising pressure at till points, clear guidance for the team how to manage social distancing, erecting sneeze screens at customer service and payment points. The team upon return will be inducted on the procedures and how they can protect themselves while maintaining customer service standards and expectations.
“The future of how our customers shop and there need to visit us will evolve dramatically in the months to come. With no date for reopening of the restaurant, social distancing measures, cancelling of events all of which provide footfall throughout the centre results in the need to re-evaluate how we operate. Developing our delivery and 'click and collect' services will be high on the priority list as caution, change in buying habits and isolation for many will continue long after lock down rules are lifted.
“What we do have is a desire and enthusiasm to succeed and find a way through.”
Finally, a garden centre owner who is very concerned about the impact of all this on his staff told us: “We are going to have to make some difficult staff decisions. It's very much a waiting game at the moment with so many more questions than answers.
“When will we be allowed to open? What restrictions will be in place? Will customers actually come and shop with us? Can we get stock in time? And hundreds more. So planning is very difficult.
“We hope that garden centres will be amongst the first to be unlocked. We hope there is still a demand. The longer it goes on the more of the planting season passes by.
"We accept that restaurants will be amongst the last to open and we accept that come the end of June our catering team is facing redundancy.
"We have applied for a substantial loan to see us through the next 12 months and should this be approved, the bank will ask us to justify all of our decisions.
"We think we will have to operate with a reduced workforce and trading will be difficult. There is the real possibility the market will be flooded as retailers scramble to turn stock into cash to pay suppliers.
"Our layouts have been redesigned a number of times to allow for even wider aisles and less browsing. This keeps staff and customers apart.
"We have temporary fencing ready for queue control.
"Our cleaning schedules have been adapted with till screens, trolleys, desks and other surfaces used by staff and customers to be cleaned more frequently.
"We have planned changes to our staff welfare facilities and will introduce limits where necessary. We will have a second staff room and it is unlikely we will restock the vending machines in the short term. Staff mugs will be replaced with disposable ones and if necessary we will relocate some staff lockers so they are not all in the same place.
"We have closed public toilets but will continue to offer staff loos and these will be cleaned even more regularly.
"We have extensive signage produced and ready to go. These include reminders on social distancing and respecting our colleagues.
"We have a plan for our website and social media to let the customers know what is and what is not available so staff don't have to deal with as many customers face to face.
"We do not know if our concession partners will want or be allowed to open - so we have a back up plan in case they do not.
"We have some staff training to do when the team come back and we know that some of them will not want to return and may well leave us permanently.
"We will ask for card payments only - but won't refuse cash.
"We are yet to decide on restrictions to family members. Ideally we would ban children, under 16's, but this may not be easy to do. We will of course control numbers into store and follow the supermarkets example. There is a concern that we become a meeting place, somewhere to browse or accidentally bump into the grandparents if wider restrictions remain. This could be hard for us to manage.
"We accept we cannot force the customer on a one way journey and are prepared for customer disputes with one another. We will have a zero tolerance policy clearly displayed.
"We have face masks on order, alcohol gels and wipes in stock for customer and staff use.
"We have a strict till procedure that will help social distancing.
"We have made changes to our information desk to keep people apart.
"We need to manage deliveries in and out to maintain social distancing.
"We are considering after hours restocking to keep customers and staff apart.
"Opening / trading times are under review too. We may open longer and/or stagger staff start times.
"We accept that we might have to make some jobs redundant.
"Better to protect the majority of the jobs and lose a few rather than see the business fail.
"There is still work to do and things may change once we know more."
If you'd like to add your staff protection ideas and actions to this story please use the comments link below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org