GIMA Director, Vicky Nuttall, looks to the future

The effects of Covid-19 were unprecedented, but so is the industry’s resolve to get back on track and thrive. Immerse yourself in any newspaper story, business forecast or press release published since Covid-19 struck and you’re likely to see the events of 2020 described as ‘unprecedented’. It is indeed highly overused, but no other adjective so powerfully sums up the enormity of the crisis that gripped retail horticulture this spring, as well as the industry’s efforts to reinvent itself in a post-lockdown world and re-emerge thriving.

As I write this at the end of May, with garden centres finally open throughout the UK, retail horticulture and its supply chain is battling to keep up with – and I’m sorry to use the term again – unprecedented demand as consumers play catch-up at retail outlets in a bid to make up for 2020’s lost spring.

I’ve been speaking to colleagues in the industry who tell me they’ve never witnessed anything on this scale. Under normal circumstances, as May turns to June, peak demand tends to level out, giving the sector a brief respite in which to catch its breath. But this year, as we know too well, is anything but normal. Ahead of wider non-essential retail being allowed to rise from the ashes, there was little sign of demand tailing off in garden retail, providing a welcome return of cashflow in the sector.

But what about further ahead? Forecasting in a post-Covid economy is fraught with uncertainty, but I believe that garden retail will emerge as a winner in the long-term: the nation’s holiday plans are going to be severely restricted, and while initial pent-up demand may dissipate as the wider retail sector throws open its doors, a consumer mindset driven by staycation culture can only prove to be positive for garden and home retailers.

With orders for growing media, pots and containers, grass seed, chemicals, fertilisers, aggregates and watering equipment going through the roof, frustration at the prospect of delivery delays and stock shortages is inevitable, especially where some core gardening suppliers have been deluged with a year’s worth of orders in a matter of weeks. The supply chain is operating at full throttle but flooding warehouses and distribution operations with extra staff simply isn’t an option while safely addressing the challenges of social distancing.

Production can be ramped-up by increasing shifts that are spread across seven days of the week, but Covid distancing-compliance will inevitably hamper production and slow operations down, even where business models have been transformed to facilitate round-the-clock working.

Understanding supply chain challenges remains paramount to navigating this new normal and resolving stock issues. We have all become masters of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, so keeping every channel of communication open is more important than ever to keep orders flowing. Reps who would normally be visiting retail outlets to discuss orders are now working by phone and via the internet, whereas merchandisers are taking pictures of stock and fixtures and communicating their needs to suppliers online. Many have returned to using pen and paper, to avoid sharing keyboards and touchscreens, while merchandisers are working long hours to replenish stock prior to stores opening and after they close.

With summer now in full swing, thoughts inevitably turn to autumn and new product development ahead of 2021. Lockdown, however, resulted in retailers only recently unveiling the sector’s innovation for 2020 to consumers. This extraordinarily late start to the season means that suppliers will have to assess the industry’s appetite for further product launches, which would normally be at the top of the agenda for buyers heading to Glee.

The extraordinary situation that’s reshaping the supply chain, retail sector and mindset of consumers is – dare I say it again – unprecedented in every way. No other word encapsulates the scale of how this pandemic has shaken every business to its core. The speed at which garden retail has adapted has set a benchmark that other sectors will surely follow. Lockdown saw the nation rekindle its love affair with gardening, while a new generation of consumers grew green fingers for the first time. If the industry continues to calmly resolve current challenges, and the public remain patient while complying to socially distanced shopping, I believe that the outlook for the sector remains bright.