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Retail success stories seldom hit the headlines with the UK gripped by Brexit jitters – but the nation’s garden centres are riding on the crest of a wave. While Britain’s High Streets are facing economic headwinds that have seen big name retailers consigned to history, garden centres are bucking the trend and experiencing healthy levels of growth.
According to the Horticultural Trades Association, the UK garden market is worth around £5.7billion (excluding landscaping and amenity) and business is booming for the UK’s 2,300 garden centres and retail nurseries.
The January 2019 issue of HTA Market Update found that garden centre sales were up by 3% in 2018 compared to 2017. Houseplants were star performers, up by 15% year-on-year. Christmas categories saw strong growth in 2018 with December sales 9% up on 2017.
HTA Director of Operations, Martin Simmons said: “HTA members are reporting a healthy start to the year, aided by daily maximum temperatures in February that were the highest on record. Given that the equivalent time last year saw the Beast from the East, no one is under the illusion that comparisons with February 2018 would be fair, but it’s a promising start. This is encouraging as we move through an uncertain economic period this season.”
Simmons said that in the past, the garden industry has shown some resilience to economic uncertainty: “With a later Mother’s Day and Easter this year, and the chance of better weather, there’s a possibility that consumers will want a distraction from Brexit.”
High footfall and category growth at garden centres is a world away from the crisis that’s gripping High Streets. According to an analysis by The Guardian, English and Welsh town centres have lost 8% of their shops on average since 2013. Last year  was a retail bloodbath. Toys ‘R’ Us closed its final stores in April. Maplin pulled down the shutters at the last of its 200 branches. House of Fraser collapsed into administration, with the 59-store chain eventually bought by Sports Direct. Up to 31 stores faced threat of closure.
The carnage didn’t stop there. Discounter Poundworld called in the administrators, Carpetright said it was planning to close over 90 UK stores, Prezzo unveiled plans to axe 94 restaurants, Homebase set out to shut unprofitable stores and Mothercare announced it could close 50 outlets. And the dawn of 2019 wasn’t enough to lift the gloom, with HMV and Office Outlet calling in the administrators.
So why is garden retail thriving at a time when shutters are crashing down in High Streets? Garden centres have evolved to embrace catering, giftware and food halls, reinventing their businesses as leisure destinations that offer a family-friendly shopping experience that’s worlds away from the toxic mix of high parking charges, empty retail units and competition from the internet that are blighting town centres across that UK. And it’s a strategy that’s paying dividends.
According to The Garden Centre Association’s Barometer of Trade (BoT), sales of outdoor plants in November 2018 were up by 11.69% compared to the same month in 2017. Mild weather saw hard landscaping sales soar by 13.12% compared to November 2017, as shoppers took advantage of mild weather to complete outdoor projects before winter set in. Category performers included catering (up 7.08%) and houseplants (up 6.45%).
December was also a strong month for garden retailers. Sales of outdoor plants rose by 17.73% on the same period the previous year. Christmas sales picked up after a slow November, rising by 6.54% on December 2017. Houseplants continued their upwards march (up by 8.12%) with growth in food hall sales (9.9%), clothing (4.44%) and catering (11%). Hard landscaping sales climbed by 12.21%.
And festive cheer extended into January 2019, which was led by a double-digit sales boom in houseplants and outdoor plants, up by 16.96% and 13.03% respectively, when compared to January 2018. Christmas sales jumped by 12.39% indicating a buoyant market for post festive clearance. Other star performers in January included garden sundries (9.02%) and catering sales (10.35%).
Organisers of Glee, the UK’s most valuable garden and outdoor living trade show, which will take place at Birmingham’s NEC on 10-12 September, are upbeat. Glee Event Director, Matthew Mein, said: “Garden centres are the retail success story and Glee is a showcase for the innovation and creativity that powers this sector onwards, regardless of economic uncertainty. As well as showcasing the best new products with the potential to drive category growth, Glee is an annual platform to network with existing and potential customers – a one-stop-shop to do business.”
With more than 550 exhibitors and over 7,000 visitors – of which more than 4,000 are senior decision makers – this year’s Glee will be critical to secure continued growth for garden retail. It takes place at the perfect time of year for UK and international buyers to place orders to re-stock shelves in run up to Christmas, and secure stock ahead of the coming year. Taking place in a centrally located exhibition complex, easily accessible by the motorway network, rail or air, Glee will be visited by independent garden centres, online retailers and multiple-chain retailers.
Director of the Garden Industry Manufacturers’ Association (GIMA), Vicky Nuttall, is also confident about prospects for garden retailers in the run-up to Glee. She said: “The retail market for garden products continues to be strong, despite the doom and gloom predictions for the UK retail. According to Euromonitor International, the gardening sector alone was forecast to show a healthy 4.8% growth in 2018, reaching £4.6billion at retail sales value, with bricks and mortar specialist garden retailers such as garden centres still accounting for around 66% of sales.”
Nuttall pointed out that while the internet continues to grow in its dominance in other sectors, ongoing investment in garden centre development has provided a positive purchasing environment for visiting consumers: She explains: “The ongoing challenge for retailers and suppliers is to evolve their product and service offer to suit the emerging millennial market, without alienating its current customer base.
“More immediate concerns relate to Brexit and how this ongoing uncertainty will affect consumer spending and business investment. It’s still very much a waiting game but the industry already has an inbuilt resilience developed though coping with the unpredictability of the British weather, 2017 being a prime example.”
Another key factor is underpinning confidence in garden retail. According to the latest overview of the UK population, carried out by the Office for National Statistics in 2017, the UK has a growing – and ageing population – a factor that demonstrates why garden retailers are expanding their offering to cater for higher footfall from customers of retirement age.
The ONS found that, in 2016, the UK population hit 65.6million, an all-time high, and it’s predicted to carry on growing, reaching over 74million by 2039. The ONS report said: “While the population is growing, improvements in healthcare and lifestyles mean the population is getting older. In 2016 in the UK, 18% of people were aged 65 and over, and 2.4% were aged 85 and over.”
Crucially, the ONS found that between 1976 and 2016 there was a 3.8% increase in the proportion of people aged 65 and over. It is projected to continue to grow to nearly a quarter of the population by 2046. That can only be good news for garden retailers.
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