Following last week’s burst of media stories about queues outside garden centres and knock on effects of cars parking on roadsides when centre car parks were closed GTN Xtra has been speaking with garden centre owners and managers over the weekend to find out more about the measures they have been putting in place to keep their customers and their staff safe while they, very gratefully, trade through Lockdown 2 and cope with the added pressures of customers wanting to shop Christmas as well as their gardening and plant essentials.
Let’s start at Ayletts where Adam Wigglesworth sent us photo’s of their “Shop and Go” banners (above). Adam explained: “We've got this massive banner outside that says, we are running a shop and go model.
“We're not encouraging people to browse we are encouraging people to shop efficiently.
“That's why we've created more till points and if you're coming for your Christmas tree, you can literally buy it in the open, leave through an open air till, get back in the car, done.
“Genuinely, every single thing we do is driven at the moment by trying to manage the risk to customers and staff. That is really what it is. I'm sorry that you're not browsing. I'm sorry that we haven't got as many amazing displays, but we've got some and we've kept the magic of Christmas but we've tried to do it in a way that means you don't get mobbed by other people.
“That's the shop and go model. It doesn't mean you can't have a nice experience, but we don't want people to be here for four hours. That's not the model we're on at the moment. That's why we won't be opening our coffee shop.
“You'll see the banner says we're limiting numbers in the shops, so please shop as efficiently as possible. Because every person who takes a really long time shopping is making another person wait in the car park and then they're increasing their risk because although they are standing with their face mask on they're still near other people. So, everyone has to be thoughtful and help. And that's the message we're trying to get across.”
Back in April Derek Bunker at Altons in Essex predicted that Christmas would be big this year. How right he has been proved, despite having to implement measures to reduce the number of customer sin the garden centre. “The way we've coped with it is we have restricted the parking spaces. We shut off an area of the car park, so that meant we could get so many cars in. If you can't get so many cars and you don't have so many people in, you solve one of your problems.
“If you come here, you drive down the road and there's a queue to get in the car park you decide to either wait in the car or you drive on because you're not going to do it. So, you're disappointed, but you're not annoyed.
“What we then do is we have a monitor on the door and we have people advising him when its OK to let customers in. At the same time, we also make sure that before they go in the shop, they're either wearing their face masks or they show us their exemption. We've had a few arguments about that because although they don't have to show me the exemption, I say you're quite right but by law I don't have to let you in.
“People are coming to the garden centre because they want to cheer themselves up. A lot of people have a lot of spare cash compared with normal because they can't go out for a meal, they can't go on holiday. Whereas they might normally have twenty five, thirty pounds to spare, they've got fifty or sixty spare now and saying we're going to go and buy ourselves a big reindeer or a big artificial tree or whatever it might be. I think people are cheering themselves up.
“Now I’m interested in all the potential gardening gifts and great ideas for all those new customers who are more garden aware.”
In the North West, Matthew Bent, who has been managing Bents Garden & Home remotely due to one of his children contracting COVID-19, told us: “Our car park has been fine. We've only been up to 70 percent of capacity in the car park. it's not been too bad, but queues to get into the centre have been long.
“The worst day actually is a Sunday. You can see the conversion rate in the week is really high. Then it drops on a Saturday and then on Sunday it just drops to the floor. So, everybody is going out on a Sunday, not buying, they're just going to look around and spending ages in the store, which makes the queues even worse on a Sunday.
“We spent a huge amount time last week, expanding the queues to two and a half rather than two metres and made them wider outside to make sure people are social distancing.
“We have been so careful with everything directed to customers, with any non-essential email or non-essential tweet is saying you can just come to us for essentials, if you are buying non-essentials please use on-line.
“One of the things we're considering is do we actually limit the numbers of people coming in next year? Because it is a pleasure to shop. It's so much easier to actually get around. And I think people are just doing it one shop rather than a number of shops. But I think we are missing those customers who just come along to look and they might pick up a couple of things along the way.
“I know not many people talk about it, but our plants sales are still massively increasing. It's phenomenal. Planted containers, for example, are massive at the moment and we're doing so many more of those. Compost, is still massively increasing and even plant pots and containers are still selling.
From South Wales, Nicola Pugh and Roger Crookes at Pughs Garden Centres report: “From the outset Pughs have seen the need to demonstrate careful management of both numbers and customer flow around their garden centres. It is not easy, it requires extra effort, and patience, from everyone on the premises.
“We cannot expect to able to live or shop in quite the same way as we used to, at this stage at least, if we are going to be able to beat this virus.
“We have been overwhelmed by the messages of support and appreciation from our customers; seeing and hearing the joy customers get from their gardens, and garden centre visits, has been a real encouragement to keep on trying to adapt to the ever changing retail environment.
“The autumn lock downs have been more tricky because the weather is less conducive to queuing, but again our customers have been amazing and patiently queued when required.
“Pughs were one of the first retailers I have seen to use an electronic number counter linked to a traffic light system at the front doors.
“Part of the problem, I think, is that garden centres are enjoyed as browsing destinations – we all love to walk around looking at the plants etc and that may not be practical when the centres are running at capacity during times of peak demand. So we have to try and help our customers make their essential purchase decisions and move through the centre quickly, this is not the way we like to operate but we have to be realistic and fair to the customers who are waiting outside … and generally it seems to work.
In Scotland Ken Cox at Glendoick Garden Centre told us: “At 7pm last night (Friday) we were sent a Scottish Government announcement that Santa experiences had to move outside.
“Our Santa experience was due to open at 10.30 on Saturday morning. So at 9am, 6 of us moved the whole thing out into our covered outdoor space, hung lights built the sleigh, decorated trees and put in some heating. We have managed to comply with the sensible Scottish Government advice. We opened on time and lots of happy children have been through our socially distanced Santa experience this weekend.
“We are steady but not overwhelmed and are offering a safe and hopefully satisfying shopping experience which our customers are complimenting us on.
“We have a gate on our Christmas shop so that when it gets busy people have to wait. 2 members of staff handle the queue.
Back into Essex and Simon Bourne at Perrywood said “We’ve installed new screens between the tills so that all of them can be open so we don’t get long queues there and we’ve also opened extra tills in the planteria and Christmas Tree sales area.
“We’ve just added Christmas Trees to our compost Drive Thru, so customers can buy a fresh tree without leaving their car if they wish.”
Perrywood have also put up videos on the social media channels asking customers to consider coming in small groups this year.
James Debbage at Green Pastures in Norfolk says he’s seen far fewer visitors than normal coming to the site during Lockdown 2 due to the closure of their restaurant. “We don’t have a Christmas decorations department like the bigger centres and so we haven’t had that draw either.
“We have however enjoyed a moderate increase in visitors to our farm shop and our post office counter, both of which provide essential goods and services to our local community. Visitors are carefully managed by numbers being restricted in the respective shops at any one time and there are strict one-way systems in place.
“We have recently launched a new website www.greenpasturesnursery.co.uk which includes a Green Pastures webshop for the very first time! This is currently just for CLICK AND COLLECT for customers who don’t wish to be as safe as possible and not come into the store and browse. It’s an ideal for service for those who want to shop online but still get their hands on goods instantly, whilst still supporting a local independent business. This has suddenly proved very popular in the last couple of weeks for Christmas trees, tree stands and food and drink purchases. It’s taken some time to get off the ground but it’s now a great asset to us and to our customers, especially now.”
Nigel Wallis at Baytree near Spalding told GTN Xtra: “At both centres we have been counting customers in and we are still using the HTA guidelines, especially at the weekends, with extra walkie talkies for ease.
“As we have a new one way in and one way out exiting through our new farm shop, which is working really well, we have moved disabled and parent child parking to middle of car parks and had it all re lined.
“To be honest apart from the odd moan about the one way system (mainly the regulars who don’t like change) we have had great positive comments about how safe people feel.”
David Yardley told us that whilst the Klondyke Group have been busy the past few weeks they have not had a big issue with queues at the centres. “It might be different now the real trees are in stock but we are doing some late nights at centres to spread the sales out and with no Santa’s grottos or Christmas events customers aren’t staying as long as previous years.
“When the restaurants reopen next week at some of the centres, (5 centres are in tier 3 so won’t have a restaurant open) there are fewer covers so we don’t see that being too much of an issue either. We are still controlling numbers coming into store, having one-way systems, hand sanitiser etc so our customers are generally feeling safe and happy to visit.
“We have not had to limit car parking spaces or had any traffic issues, at least no so far but are keeping an eye on this and will react if we have to.”
Gerald Ingram at Planters in the West Midlands, sent us a copy of an e-mail he sent to his local environmental officer which received a positive response:
“I’m sorry you received a complaint about us this morning. Although the store was busy over the weekend customer numbers are down on last year, 35% less yesterday.
“We have a number of measures in place which I will list for you.
- All staff are temperature checked on arrival and that is recorded. They are wearing masks throughout the premises not just on the shop floor. We have screens in place not just between customer and staff but also in our offices between staff. Staff numbers are limited in staff rooms etc.
- We have a dozen hand sanitiser stations for staff and customer use, positioned on the entrance door and at points around the store.
- We have someone on the door all weekend and busy periods through the week. They are there to space customers out as they enter the store.
- We find that having someone on the door means more people hand sanitise as they enter.
- We have signage along the queuing area reminding customers of our procedures, hand face space etc
- Very few customers enter the store without wearing a facemask and most of those not wearing them are wearing a lanyard.
- We are discouraging dogs in store as they don’t help with social distancing.
- We have a one way system in place.
- We have already removed several bottle necks and more were identified over the weekend and are being removed now.
- We have used social media to encourage more shoppers onto week days and away from weekends.
- We used to have very busy Wednesdays because of our Over 60s club where a discount is offered. We now offer that 5 days a week rather than just the one day.
- We are also promoting our phone and collect service.
- We only have one internal concession, Cotton Traders and that is closed.
- We will be using the Tannoy to remind customers on distancing.
- We are operating all five tills each and every day to get customers out of the store as quickly as possible.
- The restaurant is closed as well as Skytrail.
- We do have signs around the store encouraging quick visits
“We have seen an uplift in trade (although fewer customers) and we put this down to shops being closed elsewhere and people putting up their own decorations earlier. We suspect once we get to December our trade will subside as more shops open and people have completed putting up their decorations.
“The real Reindeer will not arrive until after the 1st December and if lock down continues they will not arrive until that is lifted. However, the reindeer being outside will help draw customers outside rather than being inside.
“We do plan on running the Santa grotto but after the 2nd December and as long as lock down is not extended. We have already cancelled and refunded November bookings.
“The grotto used to comprise of mixed family groups traveling through four rooms before exiting with a photo and gift.
“This year there will single family activities on tables under cover but outside. These will be supervised by masked Elves and Mrs Christmas. The adults must wear masks and we are planning on taking the temperature of all participants.
“One family at a time will then be shown into Santa. He will be positioned with a physical barrier between him and the family. The child will help themselves to a gift and photos will be taken by parents if they wish but at a 2 m distance.”
Will Blake at St Peters in Worcester, who got shut down by his local environmental officers back in May says he’s had nothing but good feedback from their visits during this Lockdown. “Last time around we moved our entrance to give us a better one way system. We haven't moved it this time. We're bringing them in through the entrance, but we're wrapping them right the way round our plant area because that's covered but outside. So we’ve got about 80 meters of queue that's under cover but in the plant area, where all our impulse plant purchases are strategically displayed.
“We've got various queuing marshalls. They are all on radios and they hold up the queue depending on the flow in front of them.
“We don't just base it on the number like we did in the early days, we just base it on the flow of people into each area. We manage each area, not just on a very simple number in the centre overall.
“Then we've got the Garden Radio Social Distancing messages, and we're also putting our own out every 15, 20 minutes or so, just asking people to make their selections as fast as possible in a nice way and to keep their kids by their sides, because that's one of the problems when you get kids all over the place, it’s quite hard to control the flow of people.”
Police were called to Whitehall Garden Centre in Lacock last weekend after complaints of cars being parked on verges nearby.
The garden centre moved quickly to try to solve the problem and issued the following statement: “Firstly we would like to apologise for the distress caused to the residents and the surrounding communities that were affected by the cars parked dangerously along Corsham Road over the weekend.
“We experienced an unexpectedly large number of customers arriving at the Garden Centre over the weekend. At 10:30am on Sunday we were already at our max capacity, with both car parks full and a two-hour queue outside the centre.
“As a result, we made the decision to shut the gates to discourage more cars entering the car park. But regrettably as a result a number of these people took it upon themselves to park a mile from the garden centre along Corsham Road towards Corsham.”
Tong Garden Centre has also experienced queuing outside it store because of a reduced number of customers being allowed in at any one time.
Managing director Mark Farnsworth said: “We have had queues to get into the garden centre because we are limiting numbers inside the building to make it easy for everyone to adhere to social distancing rules.
“This is normally a very busy time of year for us and we would normally have over four times the number of people in store and in our restaurants, the restaurants are obviously closed at the moment.
“By making it easy for people to socially distance then we know our customers and team will feel safe and that’s vitally important to us all. We have had lots of positive feedback from customers as to how safe they feel right from May when we reopened.”
Meanwhile, Brigg Garden Centre has cancelled its Santa’s Grotto experience as Tier 3 restrictions are imposed on northern Lincolnshire. The centre said: “Santa has been in touch. He had heard the news of the nationwide restrictions that came into effect. He was looking forward to seeing you at the Brigg Grotto Experience however he has, with a heavy heart, decided that he must isolate and will not be leaving Lapland until his big flight on Christmas Eve night. Santa sends his apologies and looks forward to visiting you during the hours before Christmas morning. Remember to go to sleep nice and early.”
Alan Roper, who has been in Guernsey since March and has recovered from a COVID Infection told GTN Xtra that the Blue Diamond Garden Centres were working to slightly below the government guidelines for number so customers allowed in stores. “We have bought systems that count people in and out of the buildings.
“There's a screen on the service desk that shows how many people are in the building at any one time and when it hits the limit we then stop people coming in until the limit goes down and we've just increased the visibility by plugging in traffic lights so the customer can see red and green, as you would if you were at a junction. So, it goes red and then they wait, and it goes green and they go. It saves having people with counters on their phones or manually counting people in.
“We've been inspected numerous times by various local authorities, a number of centers, as is its their job. And we've been found to be on the right side every time.”
It was the investigation of a complaint at Cadbury Garden Centre that led to “Garden Centre Queue Chaos” story in the Express, sadly illustrated with this picture:
Shame the photo editor doesn’t realize Wisteria does not bloom in November.
Alan went on to say that Plants had been up to 90% up across the group in November. “Last week was the first week where it calmed down to about 60%. The figures are amazing.
“The other thing we've done is communicate with our three quarters of a million Blue Diamond Club members that on our website they can look, they can do click and collect, they can buy online, they can do home delivery.
“All the Christmas is there, all of clothing is there. We've said to people, you don't have to come in, but you can still get everything you need on the website.
“We had a really nice comment from a family that had a child who had been shielding and had to isolate for ages. They were so grateful they could go online and have their bird food delivered because the child liked feeding the birds and they just couldn't get out to buy any.
The last words, for the time being, go to Martin Stewart of Stewarts in Dorset and Hampshire: “We're absolutely fine. We haven't made anyone redundant all the way through. We didn't think he was going to be necessary and it turned out it wasn't necessary. I think the team feel cared for. They feel safe. I'm in there most days, certainly Broomhall and Christchurch and you're like we're all fine. And the team spirit is really high.
“We chose not to advertise the fact that we were fortunate enough to open. We said let's just go slowly. Let's say it build because it could we could get too busy and we have got steadily busier. But we're very grateful that we started off. We saw after sort of 40 percent a year and then 45, 50, 55, 60. And now we're doing, you know, budget plus excluding coffee shop. So we're pretty pleased with the way it's gone. And I think that enabled us to just learn about the levels because we really were pushing our boat out into the complete unknown. The last thing I wanted was queues getting into the car park, queues at the doors, queues at the tills, around Christmas. That was not going to do us any good at all.
“We're being quite respectful about the fact that we're really fortunate to have been able to stay open.”
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Remember there is a category for The Greatest COVID Safe Christmas Team in GTN’s Greatest Christmas Awards, see details here.