The planning, stocking, primping and priming is done. The hoses are set to fine mist as the garden centre team scurries about adding those final touches in preparation for a new sales day. Everything is lush, colourful and verdant, because the season you’ve been waiting for all year is underway.
For this feature we ventured outside the hardware channel and spent time with the garden centre specialists. They may not match the large format DIY retailers in sales volume but what they lack in total outlets they make up for with passion.
In fact I personally have never heard the words “passion” and “love” spoken so often and so fervently before – ever!
STANDING OUT FROM THE CROWD
One man who definitely loves his work is Simon Andrews, Manager of Kings Plant Barn St Lukes in Auckland. “Spring to Christmas is definitely what we work towards all year,” he enthuses. “It’s when the garden centre looks the best and it’s when we hope people show up in orderly droves.
“I’ve been here as long as the branch has been here – 22 years – and I’ve loved every day. We do plants. We don’t mistake what we do. Kings let me garden – they haven’t turned us into a gift shop or a hardware store.”
Still, admits Simon Andrews, DIY retail is a factor: “Yes the hardware boxes are a threat and I seriously don’t know if they are good for the industry. Our point of difference is our service, our range, our guarantee, our knowledge and above all our passion! It keeps our customers coming back. I’d personally love for more people to come into all the garden centres, not just a Kings. It grows the whole industry.”
Big box retail is a factor but so is the weather. Dominating the specialist garden centre landscape are the Palmers Garden Centres. I spoke with their Category Manager Ron Van Zuilen. “We’ve had stock problems this year,” confesses an exasperated Van Zuilen.
“It’s been a temperamental winter. I’ve had growers phoning me up and saying they’re three weeks behind. But the show must go on and we’re now in good shape.
“We must be doing something right,” he continues: “We get feedback from Paymark and we’re doing very well. We’re definitely taking market share off some of our competitors. To explain, in the North Island Palmers and our competitors share our sales data.
“This tells us if the basket has grown overall and if our share of that market is bigger or smaller than the previous year. The answer is YES to both. The basket has grown and Palmers’ share has grown.”
What does Ron Van Zuilen put this growth down to? He tells the same tale as Simon Andrews does above: “We compete against the chains by offering better service, better presentation and better knowledge. The problem is that New Zealand is a very small market and the same suppliers supply everyone, so we have difficulty with a product point of difference.”
ROOTED IN THE COMMUNITY
Heading south to Christchurch, Brenda Emms, Manager of Oderings Plant Centre Cashmere, has no problem with a definitive point of difference. “Yes the chains are a threat,” Emms tells us cheerily, “because a lot of our stock is the same as theirs – but our living point of difference is that we do our own growing.
“All our vegetables, bedding lines, perennials and most of our shrubs are grown in our nurseries here in Christchurch and up at our Havelock North branch. That’s growing expertise from five generations of Oderings. In fact, right now, there are four generations of Oderings currently working in the business.”
“Yes the chains are a threat – but our living point of difference is that we do our own growing”
Like many other industries, lawns & gardens thrive when customer and retailer have a relationship. “We’re rooted in the community,” says Brenda Emms. “Our customers are still supporting us just like they did through the earthquakes. They’re very loyal.
“If I had to sum up what separates us from the hardware chains it would be personalised service. We train all our staff. Part of our ‘Golden Rule’ is, the moment a customer walks through our door, they are welcomed and greeted. They always get a smile to say, ‘hey you’re important’. We’re encouraged to greet our customers by name.”
And is this reflected in Oderings’ performance? “The last 12 months have been absolutely brilliant,” she says. “A lot of people held back worried about more earthquakes. There’s no uncertainty anymore. For the next 12 months we’re predicting twice the growth.”
GOING NATURAL – CAN YOU DIG IT?
Organics is the fastest growing food sector in the world, growing 8% globally per annum. According to stats released by OANZ (Organics Aotearoa NZ), this sector will reach more than a billion US Dollars in global sales by the end of 2015.
Riding the trend, Yates and Fiona Arthur are definitely on board: “Yates is starting to focus more in the natural and organic space going forward,” she acknowledges. “It’s one of our key strategies. The new Thrive natural products are important to us. Thrive is the number one most recognised fertiliser so it makes sense to put our new range of three natural products under that brand.”
At the same time Yates is “completely comfortable” with the Zero Weed Target range and the active ingredient in that, which is a glysophate. Fiona Arthur explains: “Organic weed control is a small market at this stage, but also one of the fastest growing. So, for people looking for a softer option we’ve got Nature’s Way, which is completely organic.
“Our Conqueror Oil has been around for years and that’s just moved to organic and it’s Certified BioGro. But our fastest growing organic section is definitely vegetables. What you’re eating will always be of more concern.”
Glen Forgie, the “garden guru” at Tui Products, agrees that demand for organic is growing: “People want to know what’s in their food and what’s on it. We’ve had a successful launch into organics, it’s only a small part of the big pie, but we’re definitely seeing a trend towards that.
“We call it a ‘natural focus’ trend. At its core, gardening is organic anyway. As much as we can we like to promote natural. We also do wild bird gardening. Sales have gone through the roof with one of our Nectar Feeders for example. It looks like a flower but inside you just put sugar and water and the tuis come in and feed off it.”
Back with retail, Palmers Garden Centres share the organic focus. “We’re the only garden retailer that has the BioGro certification,” says Ron Van Zuilen. “Every store gets audited both by myself and by BioGro. We’re very proud of that.”
Van Zuilen personally looks after the organic category and says he has seen big growth in both consumer demand and in Palmer’s offering to fulfil that demand. “We’re seeing younger customers demanding to know where their food has come from,” he says. “They want to know ‘is this product safe to use?’”
Unfortunately in New Zealand organic is not controlled. “Anyone can use the word,” says Ron Van Zuilen. “We’re probably the only country in the OECD where you can get away with that.”
ADD COLOUR TO YOUR SMALLS
As New Zealand continues to evolve somewhat grudgingly into an urban-based population and Auckland in particular struggles to cope with its housing and land shortage, back yards are continuing to shrink to the size of a pocket handkerchief. For thousands of apartment dwellers, their great outdoors is a balcony or terrace.
Sitting on the fringe of Auckland’s CBD is Kings Plant Barn St Lukes, whose Simon Andrews confirms some of these urban tastes: “We’ve had huge growth in indoor plants, mainly the younger market. They’re young urban professionals and they’re buying terrariums, bonsais, cactus and succulents. We’re selling edibles and florals that can grow in pots, raised gardens or climb up a wall.”
Growing in SKUs and demand, a similar pattern is playing out at Mitre 10 Ponsonby. Owner-Manager Warren May concurs: “Because of the number of apartments around here we sell a lot of compost and punnets. Nothing big: herbs, veges, potted colour and perennials. Our customers may be younger and some live five floors up, but they still want to grow something and feel that primal connection.”
Colour is the trend that everyone in this category is telling me is increasing. Edibles have been strong and will remain that way but years on from the GFC and like a peacock strutting onto a stage, colour is back in all its glory.
Taking the longest view and making the boldest predictions for future trends is Kate Marshall, Sales & Marketing Manager at Waimea Nurseries in Nelson. “We plan three years ahead – we have to because we specialise in fruit trees and deciduous, stone fruit in particular. They take years to establish. We lift them in winter when they’re dormant.”
Marshall’s predictions – lots of interest in dwarf varieties and also espalier: “In an urban type garden, an espalier fruit tree you can train to climb a wall or a fence is a great way of saving space. We’ve planted heritage and cider varieties like Kingston Black, newer disease resistance trees and a nectarine called Mabel which has beautiful purple leaves.”
AT THE CUTTING EDGE OF LAWNS
So much for plants – what about lawns? To paraphrase a “Don’t Drink & Drive” commercial that plays too often on our televisions: ‘It’s not what we’re putting on our lawns but how we’re putting it on.”
Kiwicare’s Neil Martin expounds: “We’ve developed some real innovation around the application of granules for lawn care. It’s not the formulation, it’s the unit itself that’s exciting for us.
“We know from research that lawn care in New Zealand, particularly in Auckland, is really underdone. The major barrier is people thinking it’s just too hard. The product is a spreader refiller type unit. It disperses itself and all you have to do is walk around like you’re holding a watering can.”
And, with NIWA and Metservice predicting drought-like conditions for eastern and northern parts of the country over summer and sporting all new packaging, Burnet’s have launched a range of four hardy lawn seeds. The Tall Fescue lawn seed variety in particular has superior drought, heat and disease resistance.
As we race at warp speed into the digital future, the overall trend is to put some nature back into our lives and return (even for a few hours a week) to the simpler “good life” our grandparents enjoyed.
So, as consumers survey their raised bed organic vege patches from handmade macrocarpa loungers placed artfully on a tiny but lovingly tended lawn and raise their glasses of home brewed craft beer – take a bow.
It’s not about the SKUs, the sales or the market share – it’s all about the love. Have a great season!