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Garden Centres remain resilient despite washout weather, according to latest GCA figures

By Barry Lane|Aug 25, 2023|9:51 pm BST

If there’s one thing you can count on from the UK, it’s unpredictable weather. And 2023 has been the master of that. Unseasonal wet weather has jeopardised harvest and left retailers struggling to shift summer stock while also ruining summer trading for hospitality.

But there’s one small sliver of British retail that July showers can’t put a damper on. The Garden Centre Association (GCA) released its Barometer of Trade (BoT) for July this week, a monthly report compiled using sales figures from its member garden centres. They show that the sector has thrived despite the rain, with sales up 1.03% year-to-date.

Peter Burks, GCA chief executive, said of the findings, “Sales in July held up remarkably well considering the very dull and wet weather we had to endure. This was greatly helped by catering yet again, the biggest single category this month by some distance, at +30.35%, and supported by plant sales, both indoor, +12.55%, and outdoor, +11.1%.”

No stranger to diversification, garden centres have become destinations in their own right. Seasonal activities like Santa’s grottos and crazy golf now run alongside year-round offerings such as cafes, gifts, clothing, homeware, plants and furniture. It is this complexity that gives them the resilience to chart a path to growth in even the toughest times. The cost of living crisis currently battering the hospitality and retail industries, for example, is kept at bay in garden centres – a cream tea at a cafe or a candle bought on impulse is much further down the list of unnecessary extravagences than a meal out or big ticket items.

With significant indoor square footage and something for everyone, garden centre complexes are desirable destinations whether the sun’s out or it is pouring with rain. The GCA noted that sales in garden centre food halls and farm shops were also up in July by 14.39%.

Despite its reliance, the sector is still grappling with the same challenges as other retailers. A nearly 41% drop in furniture and BBQ sales in July will have many worrying about their ability to clear stock before Halloween merchandise hits stores. It’s a timely reminder of the importance of getting the right mix of what to dedicate retail space to in any given month.

Optimising through adversity

Cafes and restaurants are a major contributor to the bottom line for garden centres – and not just during a wash-out July. For the second largest chain in the UK, the British Garden Centre Group, restaurants are the biggest gross margin contributor and account for a little over 30% of income. And, of course, they have a knock-on effect on other areas, increasing dwell time onsite and attracting a broad variety of shoppers.

Little wonder then that many operators are looking at ways to increase the space given over to catering, or bring it back in-house in situations where it’s been subcontracted. But there are efficiencies operators ought to look to first to maximise the value of their operations as a whole.

Understanding demand during unprecedented volatility is challenging. GCA’s sales data shows that gift sales in July were up roughly as much as gardening sundries were down (+8.24% and -8.85% respectively). Planning for unseasonal demand swings is challenging; not only does it have a knock on impact on merchandising and margin, but it adds an additional complication to staff scheduling as well.

Understaffing is a key contributor to staff engagement and can have a negative impact on the outlook of staff. Nearly half of UK retail workers feel overworked and underappreciated as a result of staff shortages. With a highly varied, multi-skilled workforce, garden centres don’t have the same flexibility other retailers have to move workers between over- and understaffed departments. Nursery staff can’t simply cover concessions or a food hall at short notice.

Nor would you want them to. In a garden centre environment, staff have a far bigger impact on customer experience than any other retail venue. Whether they’re grabbing lunch or a perennial, garden centre customers expect knowledgeable, friendly staff. Individuals are highly specialised and need to be engaged and enthusiastic.

We’ve seen a trend this year of operators seeking to leverage their data to overcome the complexities of scheduling and better manage inventory during periods of volatile demand. Workforce management platforms and restaurant inventory are fast becoming a must-have, the latter in particular as catering offers grow and compliance around factors like allergen and dietary publishing becomes a consideration.

Yet, garden centres are woefully underserved by technology partners. While there are similarities with traditional retail, the food and beverage (F&B) aspect of their sites means most retail solutions are inadequate for restaurant and cafe teams. Garden centres are recognising this and increasingly seeking technology built for hospitality that can help them to forecast demand and automate scheduling for all teams, while supporting restaurant operations such as menu engineering, allergen publishing, and inventory management. Platforms built for the hospitality sector are far better suited to the unique needs of garden centres and their many departments than those of traditional retail vendors, who don’t understand their world.

Over 60 garden centres already rely on Fourth to optimise their scheduling, manage their payroll and handle all aspects of their restaurant operation from one platform. Leveraging Fourth’s AI-driven forecasting and analytics, garden centres can reduce complexity, control costs and drive profits across every department.

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