After being shut down on 23 March, it now looks possible that garden centres might be able to unlock their doors around May 11. That date falls within the Government’s second three-week lockdown and during the "green light" first phase of non-essential retail openings. Extensive lobbying of Government and much positive publicity in the media from the likes of Alan Titchmarsh seems to have pushed garden retail to the front of the queue. The Government will probably give a few days’ warning so that retailers can stock up and organise staffing.
What’s the word on the patio?
A new YouGov poll shows 70 per cent of people surveyed are comfortable about garden centres reopening – far more than for clothes stores, hairdressers or restaurants. This is partly because garden centres have big open air spaces where customers can easily carry out social distancing.
Backing gardening and the chance to buy plants is also an easy way the Government can help improve people’s mental and physical health when they are stuck at home. Moreover, by allowing garden centres to open in the first wave, politicians can help stricken growers without having to pay £250m in bail-out grants that the horticulture industry has been pleading for.
The weather has been perfect for gardening. Online and home delivery plant and compost sales have gone ballistic – with queues to even get on websites or order by phone. So there will be plenty of pent-up demand at garden centres. The industry has lost hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of sales during peak season.
The UK – along with Spain and Italy - has had some of the strictest lockdown conditions on this sector. Holland never shut its garden centres, while parts of Germany, Switzerland and some Scandanavian countries have had centres open again for several weeks. Queues were reported in Austria and Belgium when their garden centres reopened recently. So, expect to queues of cars at garden centre gates with staff marshalling.
What will garden centres be allowed to sell?
Plants and gardening goods. A dream come true for BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don, who has been critical of the business: “I’m not sure when garden centres went from being places devoted to selling plants, seeds and equipment to centres for ‘outdoor living’, disguised as soft-furnishing stores with restaurants attached, with plants for sale like sweeties at a supermarket checkout.”
Monty’s wishes will all come true and garden centres will go back to basics and sell just plants, seeds, bulbs, compost, fertilisers and chemicals and garden hardware. That means no tea and buns, no knicknacks, gewgaws, candles or cookware. Or soft furnishings.
What restrictions/safety precautions will be in place?
Starting at the gate, there will be limited numbers of cars allowed in car parks, and spaces between each parking place. As with supermarkets, customers will be encouraged to use disinfected trolleys and hand sanitiser dispensers. Numbers are are likely to be limited to one person per 10 sq m, leading to an estimated maximum of 40 per cent of usual footfall.
Horticultural Trades Association chairman James Barnes sent suggested guidelines to the Government on 10 April in the hope of an early steer on centres reopening so that they can still catch a bit of May’s peak season. In those guidelines, he suggested creating a separate entrance and exit and a one-way flow, e.g. with customers arriving through the plant area and exiting through the shop, to limit crossover with other customers.
Staff will clutch coronavirus customer care guidebooks and the walls will be papered with signs asking symptomatic customers not to enter the store, and reminding both staff and customers to always keep two metres from other people. Markers on the floor will indicate the correct distance. Staff will discourage browsing.
On leaving through the main shop, customers will find spaced-apart tills, surrounded in plexiglass screens. Payment will be by card rather than cash.
Will cafes be open?
No. UK restaurants are unlikely to re-open until late summer. Some garden centres have drawn up plans to halve table numbers so that, when restrictions are lifted, tables are set well apart. It remains to be seen how many casual gardeners will visit garden centres without the lure of coffee and cake.
Will this mean a long-term change in the industry?
Yes. There will be a shift to online sales – already a whole new sector of pop-up sellers (such as Hope Plants, Plant Love UK, Love Gardening Direct, Plant Pack, Plant Savers and Plants 2 People) have set up. Consumers have become more used to buying plants online. Established online specialists such as Crocus, Hayloft, Thompson & Morgan, Suttons, Mr Fothergill’s and Gardening Express have also been run off their feet.
Previously, gardening was well behind other sectors in online sales because people like to touch, smell and feel plants before taking the plunge. Garden centres also attract an older clientele and it could take time for them to trust they are safe again.
Matthew Appleby is the editor of Horticulture Week.
Article from The Telegraph.
27 April 2020