A ray of light for garden centres as Belgium eases restrictions

Belgium has become the latest European nation to lift some of the restrictions designed to stop the spread of Covid 19, with DIY and gardening stores opening their doors for the first time in a month. People were queuing up to enter one big hardware and garden centre in the capital Brussels as shoppers said they were ‘desperate’ for meaningful activites to keep them busy during lockdown.

Whilst the plan for reopening Britain’s high streets has not yet been determined but there are indications that Britain’s 2000 or so garden centres could open soon with strict social distancing rules. The horticulture industry has been hit incredibly hard as the lockdown was enforced right at the start of peak season, amid warnings that £200 million of seasonal plants will have to be destroyed if garden centres have to stay closed until June.

Whilst demand for gardening equipment and materials, including seeds, have soared, most garden centres have been unable to trade as normal and have instead watched their supermarket and DIY store rivals mop up the entire market share, in yet another blow for independent retailing.
April – June is a more important trading period than Christmas for the horticulture industry and ministers are now considering proposals to help garden centres open so they can avoid an overall predicted loss of £1.6 billion.

The industry has been forced to accept the loss of their prime spring sales, but garden centre owners hope to avoid more serious financial pain if they are allowed to offload stocks of summer plants. They say they can shift stock quickly and start paying supplies if the Government approves the arrangements which would allow people to buy plants, essential gardening equipment and pet care products, all of which are being sold in other shops which were allowed to stay open.

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Sarah Squire, chairman of the independent Squires chain of garden centres, said: ‘The timing could not be worse for our sector. It’s all about the spring for us, and if we can catch a little bit of that, it would make a very big difference. We make 40 per cent of our annual takings from the middle of March to the end of June. So you don’t need a degree in economics to know that for the rest of the year it will be difficult for us. You need to make your profits in the spring to carry the business through the rest of the year.’

DIY giant, B&Q, has already been allowed to open 14 stores to trial new social distancing measures, in a sign that the Government might be shifting on its overall strategy and blanket lockdown policies. Since the lockdown, DIY stores have been allowed only to sell items for emergency repairs through click and collect services whereby shoppers order online then drive to stores, where orders are loaded into their car boots by staff. Stores have been told to narrow their offering to stop shoppers from buying home improvement and decoration items.

Industry leaders say the rules should be relaxed. Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retail Association (Bira), said: “We do know from our members who run hardware stores that there has been a huge demand for DIY products, especially paint, and most of them have chosen to stay open. There is a sense that if you are asking people to stay at home and don’t want them to go stir crazy, then they should be allowed to do something in the house whether it’s DIY, painting or gardening. Some of our members are taking to delivering their stock and people are very happy to receive stuff at home. It helps lift the national spirit to have something to do.”

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