After the first full week of operating during lockdown 3, several garden centre owners and directors have shared their views about being allowed to be open for business.
Adam Wigglesworth at Aylett Nurseries said: “Three times the government has taken the specific decision to open garden centres. In May ahead of mainstream retail, in November and now last week. With the classification as “Essential” I believe they are looking at the science and evidence of the mental and physical benefits that gardening brings. As soon as the weather improves many people will be keen to get in their gardens and by being open we are facilitating that.
“Garden centres have been exemplars of safe retailing and we are encouraging customers to “shop and go”. Centres have packed away areas, such as their Christmas sales, to discourage browsing and because January is traditionally a quiet month customer numbers are low, allowing customers and staff even more space. Helping to keep people busy at home, thinking and planning for lighter, brighter spring days is surely one of the things that our industry can help with.
“Our team are on site preparing for spring, as we would normally be, and it is vital that we are supporting our growers and suppliers by being here to receive deliveries and also to prepare to have the full range and stock that customers will need when spring and summer is here . There will not be capacity in the supply chain if goods cannot be delivered early in the year. We will be here to receive those goods and the team that are on site recognise this important issue . Organised retail areas leads to less customer queries, interactions and problems, reducing time spent in store and resulting in safer efficient shopping for all.
“We are offering online purchases for delivery and click and collect, but one size does not fit all. There are many customers who cannot order this way, or experience problems finding a delivery or click and collect slot from other retailers – they are pleased to be able to come in and frequently thank us for being open . Every centre will make their own decisions based on their risk assessments and circumstances – situations are changing all the time.
“However, we should also never take lightly the importance of the Governments view that we are “ essential retail “ and the responsibility this brings.”
Chris Francis at Hillier told GTN Xtra: “I fully respect any individual’s decision to do what they feel is right for their business. I have read a number of comments recently from Mathew Bent, Adam Wigglesworth and Martin Stewart, amongst others who all make excellent comment and clearly well-judged reason as essential retailers for remaining open. The HTA have shown great leadership throughout this situation and have also made a very balanced statement.
“At Hillier, as a designated essential retailer, we feel it is right to be available for our customers essential purchases. Fuel and Gas is currently our top selling product category (after food probably one of the most essential products at this time of year) closely followed by seed potatoes, seeds and propagation. Although the weather may not be conducive to spending too much time outdoors there are still the more dedicated hardy of our customers out in their gardens. Many gardeners are sowing, working in their greenhouses and generally getting ready for the moment the weather improves enough for them to spend more time outdoors. We have received many appreciative comments from our customers that we have remained open for them and thanking us for, in their words not mine “being responsible in regards to their safety and our staff safety” with the measures we have put in place.
“Even in this cold weather you only have to spend an hour or two outside to know how much better it makes you feel, I am pleased we are able to assist our customers in getting outdoors and hopefully improving their mental wellbeing at such a difficult time.”
Gerald Ingram at Planters agreed with Derek Bunkers thoughts: "One of the things constantly at the back of my head is how hard the HTA have worked to keep us open and it’s a bit of a slap in the face for them if we close. And as Derek suggests some have furloughed their workers simply to reduce losses in a month we would normally lose money anyway. I also think it weakens the case for getting Welsh and Scottish centres open when English ones have volunteered to close.
“I appreciate Covid and how we react is a very individual response and some centres will have been touched with it more than others. Some centres have been slow to reopen or kept their restaurants closed and it’s those same centres that have chosen to close in January and February.
“However its ironic that centres were heaving before Christmas with the potential hazards and now we are empty some choose to close.
“The teams at all three of our centres have been very supportive of staying open and inventive in ways of keeping safe at the same time delivering a first rate service. We have been getting a lot of support on Social media for our measures etc, as well as some “how are you essential?” remarks.
“Interestingly one of the reasons we launched our call and collect service last March was because a lot of reptile owners are dependant on us for live and frozen food. We are essential but not necessarily for the reasons most people think! However, I do think seeds, plants, fruit bushes and trees, compost are all essential to the hardened gardener and those looking for an activity at home.
“Also, if we close we are sacrificing our trade to The Range, B&M, B&Q, Home Bargains etc, not to mention online retailers.
“Fortunately, we have not had crowds descend on us just to spend an hour out of the house, however this is the first weekend so it may test that.
“We have split our team at Tamworth and to a degree at Bretby into two so that also helps reduce numbers in store.”
Charlie Grove, Groves of Bridport, who's "We Are Here for You" message to his customers has been used widely by other centres gave us his view on the situation: “Personally, I feel that garden centres should be staying open where they can. The HTA and GCA worked hard to get us open in the spring and like it or not we have been classed as an essential retailer, so we have a duty to do our best to remain open in a safe way. We don’t have a food hall at Groves, but we do offer a large ranges of items that I would deem as truly essential such as pet food, farm supplies and household fuel as well as a traditional range of grow your own and these are all things that our customers rely on us for. I felt more uneasy about staying open during the November lockdown when our focus was Christmas.
“Having said that, garden centre offerings vary a lot and we all rely on different footfall drivers such as catering that are not there right now. If you are in a particularly high COVID case area I completely understand the risk to staff verses the reward of opening just might just be too high. It’s a fine balance and we all have to be able to sleep at night.
“To be honest I am constantly reviewing the local situation and if I felt that the cases in our town were rising rapidly or things were becoming tense and unmanageably busy, like it was just before the first lockdown, then I would be prepared to close for the sake of our team but as things stand we have had nothing but positive feedback about staying open. Customers are coming in for the right reasons in slow but steady numbers (I don’t have much heating in the shop, so they aren’t hanging around!) and it honestly does feel safe and under control in our centre at the moment.”
Sam Bosworth, who owns two garden centres in Northamptonshire also echoed Derek Bunkers comments. “I understand we all have our own reasons for doing things, but HTA and GCA have worked so hard to get this status, it is a shame it is not being supported wholeheartedly, even if this means supported very quietly. Some areas have bigger Covid problems than others, and our businesses are very different - plant nurseries to virtual department stores - so different approaches are understandable.
“It would be a desperate shame to be open now, and then get shut down when we desperately need to be open because we are not considered essential. In reality, February through to June is when we really are essential to mental health due to our Gardening offering, a few weeks of keeping our heads down now may be essential to keeping us open in Gardening season.
“We all need to be stocktaking, putting Christmas stock away and getting gardening out, so it is not too difficult to serve the few customers that are venturing out, and as long as we are not actively seen to be promoting footfall at present, we should be OK. There is no way anyone can afford to not have staff on site, so even though we may furlough some people, keeping a till open is good for everybody's sanity.”
Martin Stewart, Stewarts Garden Centres, adds: "It is impossible to lock the doors of a Garden Centre, walk away and turn off the lights.
"Plants need watering, heating needs to be on, deliveries need to be accepted in preparation for the busy spring months ahead, seasonal lines need to be packed away, admin including payroll and bill paying needs to happen. The 31st Jan is our, and many others, end of year so stock takes have to take place.
"Suppliers need to continue to move stock from their greenhouses and warehouse. It cannot be simply ‘put on hold’ until later. Chaos would ensue. We have to be there to accept them. This of all years, with the disruption to the supply chain, is not the year to delay deliveries.
"None of the above is any different from operating an online operation except we don’t have people packing in the warehouse! People seem to forget that. Why online is deemed safer I don’t really know.
"By putting a till operator on we are able to serve the very few customers who are coming in. We are quiet and will remain so. What a sensible time to get those gardening essentials. Far better now than when we are busier after lockdown.
"Any staff that do not wish to be in are willingly furloughed, many others are keen to be in, but we don’t need many. We have so much space to socially distance and those few customers who are coming in for garden supplies are very grateful.
"We have so much to offer, we should not have to remind ourselves of the significant benefit of being able to enjoy working outside in your garden preparing for spring.
"Clearly it is for each business to decide what is best for them, their staff and customers. But for us, and we are constantly reviewing how we feel about the situation, we are remaining open."