WEBINAR RECAP: Open for business… Lessons learned from lockdown and the first week of trading
With garden centres now open for business and other UK retailers preparing to reopen, Glee arranged an exclusive roundtable of garden centre owners and industry professionals to discuss the learnings from lockdown and their first few days of trading under the “new normal” conditions we are finding ourselves in.
Hosting the panel was Trevor Pfeiffer, Director at Garden Trade News. Our panellists included:
- Mike Burks, Managing Director of The Gardens Group and chairman of the Garden Centre Association (GCA).
- Boyd Douglas-Davies, PR and Communications Director for British Garden Centres and President of the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA).
- Adam Wigglesworth, Managing Director of Aylett Nurseries in St Albans.
- Will Blake, General Manager of St Peters Garden Centre in Worcester.
The effects of lockdown legislation
Discussing the legislation surrounding the lockdown and the closure of garden centres, the general consensus on the panel was that this was unclear, both for businesses and for local authorities, with different interpretations of the rules. When asked about his prohibition notice, Will Blake told the panel, “it's all down to the local authority's interpretation of the law, and we know that different authorities were interpreting it differently. That's a sign of how quickly that legislation was rushed together.”
Garden centres in the community
Garden centres, especially those with added categories, such as St Peters' food hall and butchery, serve as essential community services. Will continued, “it's very frustrating, not just from a business perspective, but from a community perspective. I feel strongly that being able to supply my local community with food items was the right thing to do. Some of those people can't get to the local shops. The buses had been cancelled and this was their outlet just to buy basic essentials and suddenly that was taken away from them.”
On a more positive note, the reopening of garden centres across England, and now Scotland too, has been met with joy from business owners, team members and customers up and down the UK. Opening day was something like a party for many, with (socially distanced) crowds, cheering and applause as well as BBC film crews.
Mike Burks reported a huge sense of relief from his customers, saying, “we had been trading via telephone order but there's just no way you can get to everyone using that system”. He continued saying that although this hasn't been a particularly profitable way to trade, he believes “it was the right thing to do; garden centres serve our communities and one of the crucial things for us was to keep people at home, keep them safe but also keeping them gardening to keep them mentally fit as well as physically fit”.
Of course, reopening in a “Covid Secure” way has been the primary concern of all business owners to ensure the safety of staff and customers. Many of our panellists had been operating delivery systems during the lockdown and reopening the bricks and mortar centres has not meant these deliveries can stop.
Adam Wigglesworth acknowledged this saying, “you've got to be able to offer the “shop and go” experience but you've also got to be able to offer the delivery service, because there are still so many people who cannot or don't want to come to a physical centre. A number of our team are operating email, telephone and web orders as we're still doing a hundred deliveries a day to people who are saying, ‘I can't get to the garden centre, but I need products'”.
However, whilst these delivery services continue to be important, Mike offers a word of caution: “give yourself some space to cope with the numbers of people who will come through your doors in the early days. What we had was this perfect storm of a huge number of telephone orders to deal with, at the same time as a vast number of people coming in through the doors and just being able to cope with that has not been at all easy; I think it's important to be aware of that when you do reopen”.
Another hot topic, queuing, was discussed by our panel, with all four speakers acknowledging the challenges of social distancing whilst also being really busy during the gardening season. Both Will and Mike saw around 45 customers in the queue before opening on day one back in business, whilst Adam quoted around 175 people in the queue. What all agree on is that the queuing systems that supermarkets have been operating throughout the lockdown, have been really influential in “training” waiting customers to keep their distance.
In fact, there are elements of these logistics that aren't so temporary. With crowd control around till areas, team morale has been high, with Mike saying, “till operators are feeling really quite calm about the whole thing because they're not having customers rushed on them all the time, and I think that's something we'll take forward”.
Naturally, a big part of these reopening logistics has been the element of crowd control. As with many retailers, our panellists have been experimenting with a variety of systems to ensure there is plenty of space for distancing inside the store.
The “Shop and Go” approach encourages what Boyd Douglas-Davies terms a “Supermarket Sweep type of shopping”. Rather than encouraging browsing, customers are asked to shop as quickly as they can, to free up space for other customers and also to allow less bottlenecks in key areas.
Bottlenecks have been an issue for the smaller sites of the British Garden Centres group. Boyd told the panel that secondary control points have had to be implemented in busier sections of the centres, around bedding plants and vegetables, to ensure these areas don't become congested.
Trolley systems and early admissions have both been key in controlling footfall for these retailers, with Aylett Nurseries operating on a “100 trolleys” system. Adam quotes the HTA and GCA guidance of 1 customer per 1000 sq. ft as a useful guideline for those retailers unsure of how many customers to admit.
The state of play: trading
It's no secret that garden centres across the UK have reported bumper numbers as customers flock to buy their spring and summer supplies. As Boyd tells us, “it's been like having nine bank holidays in a row!”. Reporting on trading figures, all of our panellists disclosed high average spends, even with a continued dip in physical footfall compared to this time last year. Will shared some promising numbers from the St Peters Garden Centre, saying that during the first week of trading the business went from being 48% down year to date to just 39% down. He also mentioned that average transaction value for the centre is around double what it would normally be.
Figures are similar for Ayletts Nurseries; Adam told our panel “In the last week sales were up 13% year on year. Our customer numbers are down 54%, but our average transaction value is up 207%”.
However, as with any business peak, there are concerns that this trading success cannot continue. With the warm weather, footfall was noticeably quieter for all of our panellists, although rather than being disheartened, Mike also mentioned that “by Sunday all of the systems were working so it felt quiet, but actually that day was up 25% year on year.
The general consensus on the first week of trading is that figures have started to plateau now, but that the numbers are sustainable if they stay steady for the spring and summer months.
Interestingly, customer behaviour has seen a change. As Boyd told the panel, “the single biggest thing we've realised is that actually people just want lovely plants and if they're walking in the door with an open mind that they just ‘want plants', then they're buying absolutely everything”. All of our panellists have found that customers are just looking for choice at the moment, and shoppers' normal habits have changes.
Of course, it's not just regulars coming back to their local garden centres; with the lockdown giving people more time at home, many people, of all ages, have “discovered their gardens for the first time”, as Boyd tells us. These newer gardeners, who are less conscious of seasonality are more likely to come in to buy “plants that are looking good”.
For Will, this rise in new visitors is a positive sign, as garden centres are now expecting to see their regulars or to receive orders from those who haven't come in yet. In other words, this is a peak in interest that is likely to be around for the long-term.
Managing the team
As will be the case for many UK retailers coming up, reopening our garden centres was a nerve-racking time for teams.
The teams at The Gardens Group centres benefitted from physically rehearsing new protocols and social distancing. As Mike says, “we did lots of run-throughs and kept adapting it, so actually, we'd thought about most things, I think, by the time we opened and that helped enormously”.
He continues, “there was still a nervousness when we opened and it's still there now. I think that nervousness is actually a good thing because if we get too complacent that's when we might get issues”.
Of course, PPE has been an important part of the reopening procedures, as well as social distancing to keep staff safe. British Garden Centres have invested in visors, gloves and face masks as well as hand sanitiser. Talking about the business's approach to PPE, Boyd said, “we allow [each team member] to choose what they wear from the selection of PPE. Customers are very mixed in what they're doing and wearing, but they certainly are very happy that they see the staff are conscientious”.
Changes to the supply chain
Of course, the lockdown hasn't just affected our garden centres. Nurseries and growers have been facing their own logistical and financial difficulties, which has of course affected the way we all do business.
Boyd shared at top tip with our panel: “one of the things we've found that going to the nurseries and collecting product is actually getting it into our centres quicker, so I'd encourage anyone who has got a van to go and collect”
He continues, “at the same time, please don't bash the growers for a discount at the moment, just take the plants at the normal price and collect the plants if you can. We just need to make the industry work at the moment”.
Flexibility is a common theme in the discussion around supply chains at the moment; there is a reason we are calling this time the “new normal”, after all. Whether it is changes to labelling and barcodes or allowing for greater flexibility in your delivery and inbound goods processes, there is a call to communicate with nurseries and suppliers and let them know that garden centres are here to help and work with them.
Online vs bricks and mortar
Garden centres have traditionally been experiential retailers, with many not investing in ecommerce. However, with the lockdown changing business conditions in the retail space, many have turned to online trading in some capacity.
The advice from our panel is the be careful about what you put online; considerations like packing, transport and tangibility of products should all be carefully thought through. As Adam told the panel, “we're going to keep our online offering to things that you can't really go wrong with; a bag of MiracleGro is a bag of MiracleGro, a bag of Wesson JI is Wesson JI, same with furniture”.
He continues, “if this lockdown is to happen again at Christmas, I want to be able to put Christmas products online. This industry is built on experience but at the end of the day we just need to be able to turn over money and take money”.
Looking ahead - how are our panel feeling?
Adam – “I feel hugely optimistic because if we can survive 8 weeks with 20 members of staff out of 125, 25 days on, 25 days off, so 40 in total, no catering, I feel hugely optimistic that we can adapt to most situations. It has stressed to me the importance of teamwork and of multi-skilled staff, the people who can do everything, we need more of those and when we get back to normal, that's what we're going to make sure everyone can do, because it's those people who have kept us going.”
Mike – “It's important that we remember this time. It's been an extreme time, but when, in a year's time or ten years' time of even thirty years' time, your grandchildren say to you, “what did you do during this time?”. Did you stay at home under a blanket and hide behind the sofa (and some people have got to do that of course) or did you actually step up to the mark and lead society out of the problems that we're facing and that is what I feel that we are involved in at the moment. I think that may sound like a big claim but actually, it's really important. Obviously, we're not like NHS workers, we're not like the other services that have looked after us, but we've been there fighting to open, working really hard. Keeping people gardening is a massively positive thing to do, and if we can do that now, in these difficult circumstances, then whatever's going to come, bring it on, we'll solve it.”
Boyd – “I think the recognition we've had over the last few weeks from the government and from the public has been phenomenal, I think that's going to live with us for a long time. I think at long last, we've been recognised alongside agriculture, and horticulture is now there. I think the relationship between suppliers, growers and retailers has to get stronger from this and I think that will happen – I think we'll all think a lot harder about preparations for spring. And, I think that teams have come together in a sense. These have been horrific times, very worrying, and I don't think that is all gone yet, but I do think as an industry we've come together and our place in the nation's hearts has been cemented forever.”
Will – “I'm pretty optimistic, but I'm also quietly cautious at the same time. I think we've got some pretty tough periods to come, particularly through those summer months and probably some really difficult decisions still to make, depending on how well our businesses recover. So, I'm cautious, but optimistic that the future should be pretty good.”
Trevor – “I'm hugely optimistic about the future of the industry, bearing in mind we've got restaurants to open up at some point down the line. I think the passion and enthusiasm, and the creativity, that I've seen around the industry shows that we will win, we will get through, so I'm really pleased. I'm also pleased to see that gardening and flowers have created such positive things in the environment.”