Usually on Easter Monday, GTN Xtra’s Trevor Pfeiffer contacts garden centres to ask how their Easter trading has gone, but not this year. As Robert Ducker’s drone photo of an empty car park and deserted £3.9m new road at Langlands Shiptonthorpe, which would normally be traffic jammed for most of the weekend illustrates, this was an Easter to forget, garden centre trading wise.
Instead we just asked: How are you and your team? And how are delivery services going? Will Click and Collect be part of your recovery strategy?
"We have been operating an online store for some time, on a small scale, but uploaded our EPOS database to it when the Garden Centre was shut” said one garden centre owner. “Demand has been huge, more than we can cope with logistically. We have only managed to open the online store twice a week, for about 12 hours at a time, more than that and we get swamped with orders. There is not a lot of point investing in IT or infrastructure to deal with this as most people will want to get out and buy plants afterwards, so it is head down and get on with it for a few weeks.
“We are taking about 10% of what we would normally expect to take at this time of year, and it is bloody hard work for the few staff we have in. We will look at click and collect when the option becomes available. We have mainly been selling to local customers, shipping things out in our own vans. We opened the online store at 19:30 yesterday (Sun) and had 400 orders by lunchtime today (Mon) so have switched off again. We are managing about 60-80 deliveries a day, mainly bedding plants off our Nursery, Compost and Garden Sundries."
James Debbage, Green Pastures in Norfolk told us: “We have a Farm Shop, the garden centre and a Post Office. It’s been manic! With three vehicles we’re managing 100 deliveries a day from phone orders.
“Food deliveries have been restricted to a 5 mile radius and garden centre deliveries no further than 10 miles. That way we are now being most effective with our time and resources. We are turning orders around in 24/48 hours using our cleared restaurant area as a pick and packing station. Three or four staff are handling the phone and e-mail orders each day. We’ve had to add extra phone lines to cope.
“There is so much demand, I’ve never experienced this before. We have as much business as we can handle, some days we can’t keep up with it.
“I will sell out of multipurpose compost in a few days, gro-bags have already sold out. Fortunately a new supplier is helping with supplies as my existing supplier is closed.
“Local growers are happy to supply us plants, and even those who are unable to label and barcode as usual due to social distancing issues on their packing lines. As we are delivering that is not a problem. We are finding it better to have good stocks of a few plants to cope with orders rather than a wide spread.
“We’ve even kept some of the chefs on full time to make home baked items to sell in the farm shop and deliver; soups, ready meals, pies and quiches.
“We’ve had to adopt a different mind set, it’s been a steep learning curve but the feedback on social media and from customers when we deliver is of overwhelming gratitude.”
Derek Bunker, Alton Garden Centre was also full of positivity for keeping on trading by deliveries and customer collections: “We’ve made sure we found a way through it all, after 49 years building the business I’m not about to throw in the towel.
“We already had a small on-line service, so we decided to carry on internet trading with some local customer collections. We’ve been inundated with 100 to 200 phone calls a day. To save time and get the orders correct we take peoples contact details and get the right person to call them back and if we can’t service all calls, we just ask people to call back next week.
“There are 30 people here working on phones, BBQ, furniture and lawn mower orders, small item internet orders and the outside team handling local gardening orders using garden centre trolleys on the delivery lorry to simplify the process.
“I don’t think we are making a lot of money, but demand is there, and we’d rather be here at work, socially distancing of course, than sitting at home doing nothing.
“We’ve donated plants to 40 local schools so that the children of key workers can grow while at school and houseplants for the teachers.
“So far we’ve sold over 40 VegTrugs this spring. The demand for grass seed has been very high and Westland have been great with top up deliveries. I went up to Decco in Ipswich myself to collect products we needed for our customers too.
“Demand is definitely there. If they can lift the ban at the end of April we can recover plant sales.”
Colin Barrie, Caulders Garden Centres: “It is strange times indeed! We started a delivery service about 10 days ago and then stopped it as we were overwhelmed and felt that it was difficult to operate safely.... we have now re looked at it, put the appropriate measures in place and are re starting it on a smaller scale as of tomorrow.
“I think whenever we are allowed to reopen, our opening strategy will include a robust delivery system and an efficient click and collect. I expect that it will be many months before our coffee shops are allowed to reopen, and with a lot of our customer base elderly and many who will be shielding, it will take a long time for the footfall of the garden centres to resume to previously levels. Just part of the learning curve!”
Simon Bourne, Perrywood: “What a week we could have had! I think it is safe to say that last week could have been a record breaker by some margin. 20 degrees, sunshine and clear skies provided perfect gardening weather. Our hope is that all our customers have spent time in their gardens and appreciate them even more.
“Over the last week the skeleton plant area teams have been continuing with watering and starting to setup the garden centre for when we reopen. They have also been supporting just two members of the nursery team who have been potting everything into larger pots than we would normally in the hope that when we reopen we will have larger stock of bedding plants available and ready to look good in gardens. There is a third member of the nursery team who has just started this week, he's a bit rusty but Alan's 50 odd years of experience is worth a lot. It is keeping him busy and getting him out from under mum's feet!
“I have been operating a very small delivery service just for staff members over the last few days. The team are all plant mad and to be starved of plants is sending them stir crazy. A little bit of compost and some veg, and basket plants is enough to put a smile on most people’s faces at the moment. We have also been supplying the local hardware store with a bit of compost and a few pansies. Nothing massive but it means that a few more people will be able to carry on gardening.
“With the three-week review supposedly happening today we have delayed making any major decisions until tomorrow. I think we all know that there will be continued lockdown for the next week, two weeks or probably three. After that we just don't know and that is where the trouble starts. Do we setup a home delivery service? Do we wait it out? If we opened up again in three weeks could we cope with demand? They are all questions we have been working on but it does seem that we will have little time to prepare to reopen. I've just heard on the news that Italy has started to ease lockdown. If we are on a similar path maybe our shop will reopen with the restaurant closed. We have plans for changing our shop around to help customer flow and reduce the 'browsing' that we spend so much time perfecting. We are in close contact with our suppliers and I know they will all pull all of the stops out to get as much product out to the market as is possible. “Our customers will have to be patient and understanding of the situation and for many this will be extremely difficult.
“Wishing everyone in the industry a Happy Easter.”
Julian Winfield, Haskins: “We are completely closed and took the view that it was going to be very difficult to continue our phone and delivery service in a cost effective and safe way. It is difficult to do more than 15 deliveries a day especially when it tends to be bulk low cost items such as peats and compost. Whilst it would have been a good service to offer our customers, we also took into account that we didn’t believe it was "essential" and difficult to square this with safety of our staff. We have furloughed 92% of our staff with small teams left at each garden centre site to water plants etc, Birdworld has a bigger team as the bird welfare continues if we are open or not, our finance department is still working as we have our year end to complete, pay staff and pay a reducing purchase ledger every month. We continue talking with our teams, posting videos from me on our staff section of our website with the view of keeping everyone engaged and updated on our situation.
“Our bank is being very supportive and last week we applied for one of the government backed CBIL via HSBC to secure our shot term cash position. We are now looking at a number of scenarios on how we will have to adapt our trade taking into account "social distancing". We have looked that supermarkets and learnt from what they have done, so screens around the cash desks, markings on the floor, max number shopping at any one time etc.
"We are talking regularly to our suppliers, especially on the plant side. We need our suppliers and it is essential that they see a future and survive to rebuild their businesses, it goes without saying without them we all fail. What we fear is that it will be months before we are able to open our restaurants which represents close to 25% of our sales. I understand that restaurants are opening up on the continent but waiter service only, so we may have to adjust our service style for at least the short term.
“On the positive side I believe that garden centres will be seen as reasonably safe places to visit, over 60% of retail space outside, wide paths etc will help with this perception. We are destinational with large well-spaced car parks, our customer drive rather than use public transport which I think people will avoid. Our customers will have been stuck at home enjoying their gardens so when we are re-open they will have some pent up demand which we will benefit from. I also hope and believe we will be one of the first non-essential retailers to be allowed to open which will help build the momentum back. It will take some time and is not going to be easy, but we will be in a better place than many retailers! For sometime I believe our customers will stay more at home and holiday less, that has to be good for garden centres!”
Mike Burks, The Gardens Group: “We are trading with telephone orders and home delivery. We are checking every day that staff are happy to continue this and have ensured enough space so that we are observing the distancing to keep us safe. We have perhaps a dozen staff at Castle Gardens, a similar number at Brimsmore including the farm shop and just a fab four at Poundbury!
“We have kept on a chef at Brimsmore and at Castle who sorts tea breaks and lunch for everyone.
“Drivers have kits to keep them safe and deliveries are to the front of houses. Customers are observing the rules too.
“We believe that we are keeping vulnerable people at home where they should be. It keeps them safe, mentally active and in a few weeks time they will start producing their own food.
“In conversations with customers on the phone especially the elderly it’s clear that many are bewildered and a call that takes 30 seconds to take an order often extends to 10 or 25 minutes as the team just chat.
“The feedback from customers is astonishingly positive.
“We are also delivering plants free of charge to local schools, nursing and residential homes and to hospitals for the staff.
“How long we can continue this remains uncertain and we review every day.
“Supplies coming in are patchy but we are getting good support from T&M seeds, Decco, Westland, Stax and Evergreen with a number of nurseries including Farplants and local bedding suppliers.
“Some of the small suppliers are just delighted to be moving some stock and we have prioritised what cash we can release to these suppliers.
“We have always been set up to deliver but its a completely different model to normal trading. I'm sure that we aren't making anything out of it but we believe we are doing the right thing keeping the public at home and safe.
“I understand that there are other opinions and I respect those who have made the decision to stay closed.
“Our delivering is no different to the hundreds of courier companies out there delivering for Amazon and co
“Reopening looks a long way off and it won't be simple. We are working on how we keep distancing in store, how we protect till staff and how we get the centres back up to being fully stocked with the relevant product. It won't be straightforward.”
Gerald Ingram, Planters and Garden King: “We have increased our unfurloughed team from today. Partly because looking after a plant area is a full-time job! Everything has survived but ideally it needs more care than we were able to give it. Also following the Governments direction that essential stores can sell none essential items, (following reports of police patrolling supermarket aisles making people take none essential items out of the basket) we are more open about adding garden items to pet and aquatic orders for collection.
“On Wednesday we are doing a compost delivery service. This will be one multipurpose compost on the van, minimum order 6 bags, delivery charge applies, trying to keep things simple.
“I’m taking delivery of three trolleys of plants this week. The first since lockdown!
“At Garden King, Darren got his on-line ordering up and running very quickly and as a result his trading last week wasn’t far off last year thanks to some large furniture orders.”
Justin Williams, Fron Goch: “What incredible times! Very frightening times for people who are more vulnerable and those who worked within the NHS. After this terrible health crises I imagine an economic one could follow? Especially for an industry like ours which has a large amount of perishable or seasonal product.
“We are running, like many other centres, with a very tight team servicing online sales only. Like others, we have had to turn off most products on our site for the last week as we are still catching up.
“Everyday we try and streamline and make the process more efficient but it is a totally different business model and we are all exhausted. We have two vans delivering 7 days a week. Last week we quadrupled our sales estimate to reach 30-40 deliveries per day so there is something to smile about. Key is making sure the deliveries include furniture and bbq’s etc and not just low value compost.
“It seems impossible to guess the right answers to product levels on the nursery, cancelling or delaying furniture containers. We are still hopeful of a decent late spring and summer, no doubt the current restrictions have seen an huge increase in interest for gardening and it's mental and physical health. This situation seems like it won't disappear but more likely change slowly. We already have great interest in Click and collect and it may well become an important need for those more vulnerable who have to isolate for much longer.
“Another worry is staffing, even if restrictions are lifted soon, filling the gaps of those self isolating seems daunting. Support from the community has been wonderful, our delivery teams have been very warmly received by grateful customers, who are able to stay at home and garden.
“Seeing the place empty and quiet is incredibly sad, I can't wait to see the centre and restaurant open and full of energy and life again.”
Alan Roper, Blue Diamond: “I have had my battle with the virus but now clear. My operations team and the teams that are not on furlough who are operating the Home delivery operations are magnificent. They have been totally supportive of our shut down sales initiatives. We are operating on a can-do culture.
“Demand is enormous as one would expect. We set off from the starting gates the day after shutdown to reposition the business to Home deliveries and online and its working, its successful. Of course, it doesn’t match the centres normal trade as our deliveries are just gardening. However, if you take just sales of plants and gardening sundries our sales volumes through Home deliveries is running at about 85% of last year’s sales when the centres were open. We have 37 sites this year compared to 30 last year but the sales figure is growing every day.
“Click and collect will very much be at the forefront of our strategy when we reopen.
“My hopes are limited when it comes to normal trade within the centres for the remaining length of the season. It’s the best strategic approach because it focusses you on adapting to the new world order and innovating to create opportunities for sales during shutdown.
“I suggested to the HTA two and a half weeks ago to just ask for the plant areas to open. All garden centres have open covered areas which can be converted to sell garden care products, tools, composts etc alongside the plant area. Access can be arranged directly into plant areas on most sites. Open air retail is a positive USP.
“This policy avoids clashing with high street who are closed and cannot sell products such as Home and Fashion, when we could. This approach would stop allegations of unfairness. UK garden centres have much broader high street offer than our European counterparts where garden centres are open. Germany and Austria are just two examples.
“Of course if they allow garden centres to open with non-gardening products roped off that would also work.
“This lockdown will run for some time and I don’t see any movement on garden centres. Maybe a fresh approach is needed?”