UK garden centres prepare for sales surge to end lockdown disaster

Garden centres are preparing for a surge in plant and flower sales that could help salvage a catastrophic year for the horticulture industry.

The UK’s 2,000 garden centres and nurseries were forced to close in March because, unlike DIY chains such as B&Q and Homebase, they were not granted “essential” retailer status. The shutdown came at a critical time of year, with 70% of sales rung up in spring, forcing devastated growers to throw away millions of plants.

The Welsh government’s decision on Friday to allow stores to reopen has raised hopes that the rest of UK will be close behind. The green light could not come too soon for the industry, which has been pleading or a GBP250m state aid package to avoid collapse.

Brett Avery, managing director of West Sussex grower Far Plants said it had lost about GBP5m worth of stock due to the coronavirus lockdown: “For us the key three weekends in the season would be the Easter weekend, which we’ve missed, this bank holiday, which obviously we’ve missed, and then the end of May bank holiday weekend. If there is a relaxation and we can capitalise on that last bank holiday that would be fantastic. Even when they reopen we are probably looking at 50% of normal sales capacity [because of] the rules for people to get in and out.”

James Barnes, chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), said the country’s 23 million gardeners were itching to get down to their local store to buy plants and other gardening paraphernalia.

“We know there will be a huge surge in demand. We would ask customers not to rush to retailers and buy more than they need.”

The HTA has helped garden centres come up with new, safe ways to operate. They are expected to control crowds by reducing the number of parking spaces available and putting limits on the number of shoppers in store – its recommendation is one person per 1,000 sq ft. Cafes, restaurants and children’s play areas would remain closed with Barnes asking shoppers to be “patient” as retailers operated within the restrictions.

Workers tend to flowers and plants in the glasshouse at Sandiacre Nursery near Guildford, southern England.

Asked about the Welsh government’s announcement, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “The prime minister will be setting out the next steps on Sunday. I would just stress again that any easements that we do make will be very limited, and that we will be taking a very cautious approach.”

Natalie Porter, a sales manager at the family-run Happy Plants, in Formby, Merseyside, which supplies plants to garden centres, said the firm had to throw away GBP180,000 worth of stock in the first week of the lockdown – more than the company usually makes in annual profits.

“It’s our absolute prime time,” said Porter of the key spring months. “This happened when we should have been getting a lot of plants out of the door and replacing those with more.”

The supplier usually moves 8m plants between March and June but even after selling online and making deliveries it has only made about 1% of its usual sales.

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However, there is likely to be a shortage of stock because growers have not been planting at their usual pace. Happy Plants decided to take a gamble by planting some fresh stock last month, anticipating a change in policy. “We missed three whole weeks of planting, you can’t really catch that up,” Porter said. “So if garden centres do reopen, they would be going into it with a third less stock than usual.”

The HTA said that while allowing garden centres to reopen was good news for hundreds of growers, the shutdown would leave lasting scars. In contrast, their Dutch counterparts have received a EUR600m (GBP524m) government bailout.

Barnes said: “The damage has already been done to our industry, as garden centres have been closed during the annual peak period for plant sales. The only way to rescue this sector now is for the UK government to pursue a simple Dutch-style compensation scheme, which will help save our horticultural industry.”

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