Garden centre sales expected to be as much as 50% down on usual Easter levels as gardeners put off usual spring tasks
For the UK’s garden centres, the Easter weekend is as important as Christmas is to the high street. But the coldest March in 50 years is causing havoc in the hothouses. Sales this Easter are expected to be down by as much as 50% on the levels usually recorded over the four-day holiday weekend.
Easter marks the moment when shoppers’ thoughts are supposed to switch from warming casseroles and winter woollies to barbecues, pelargoniums and garden projects. The first seed potatoes are traditionally sown on Good Friday, but frozen soil has put a stop to that time-honoured ritual across swaths of the country.
So cold has this spring been that the department store John Lewis has been stocking fake daffodils for the first time. The real thing should be in full bloom by now, but the seemingly endless winter has put the flowers that are emblematic of spring back by a month, sending wholesale prices soaring by up to 50%.
According to the Garden Centre Association (GCA), which represents nearly 200 UK outlets, sales of plants, flowerpots, compost and propagators are all well down compared with the same period last year. If the poor weather continues, there are fears that it could hit sales throughout April, which is the most important month of the year in the garden centre calendar.
One in three people in the UK – 20m – are gardeners and they spend £5bn a year at 30,000 garden-related businesses to titivate their flower beds, window boxes, allotments and lawns.
Retail analysts TNS Omnibus say more than half of all gardeners have still not ventured out into their gardens this year. That means huge numbers have not yet visited their local garden centres to buy supplies or visit the cafes and restaurants that now account for 10% of sales.
But it is not just sales of garden-related products that are suffering as a result of the recent icy blasts. The do-it-yourself business is also “spring-loaded”, with Easter weekend marking the start of the painting and decorating season, when householders splash out to embark on home improvements.
TNS Omnibus report that 45% of DIY enthusiasts say they have done less home improvement this year than last as a direct result of the cold, the rain and the wind.
Ian Cheshire, chief executive of B&Q owner Kingfisher, said: “April is such an important month because it can account for 50% of first-quarter sales. But average recent temperatures have been 3C, compared with 22C a year ago.
“This time last year, I got sunburnt and there were people out and about everywhere, whereas last weekend I was hardly outdoors at all and, when I was, there wasn’t a single person out gardening, because it was so cold and miserable.
“Easter is the equivalent of the Christmas period for DIY. The great British public buy all their outdoor stuff once a year. Easter is the starting gun. If we have a washout, it will really dent sales.”
Last year – after the freak hot weather at the end of March – the relentlessly wet weather hit sales across the Kingfisher group by 2.4%, sending profits down 13%, the first drop in five years.
Cheshire joked that he was considering introducing a paint colour called “deep snow” after sales of one called “light rain” soared by 48% last year.
Peter Burks, chairman of the GCA, said garden retailers had only a limited window of opportunity. He said: “If the weather improves fairly soon and we have a nice spring, then we could get very busy and pick things up. If the bad weather goes on much longer you can’t make it up.”
While “big ticket” sales, such as garden furniture and barbecues, may just be postponed, sales of lower-priced items such as potted plants, bedding and small garden tools can be lost for ever.
The hope now for garden centres and DIY stores is that the weather will improve by the next bank holiday weekends in May. Cheshire said: “Weekend sales can almost double when the sun’s out, so you must not lose your nerve as a retailer and start to mark the products down too early. It is quite a judgment call.”
Homebase has postponed putting bedding plants on its shelves for a few weeks and, along with B&Q, ran a series of TV adverts over the weekend focusing on painting and decorating, rather than garden promotions and campaigns.
Dan Cooper, the gifts buyer at John Lewis, said there had been one big beneficiary of the cold weather – the sort of fireside indoor activities more usually associated with Christmas. Board game sales, he said, were up 30% and nearly double the normal number of jigsaw puzzles had been sold.