Helping suppliers and retailers address Covid-19 challenges

The events of the past six months have bombarded garden retail and its supply chain with challenges of a severity that we never expected to face during our lifetimes. While the garden trade has united and worked together like never before, regular communication between retailers and suppliers remains critical to overcoming the unprecedented hurdles that continue to threaten so many businesses.

It is for this exact reason that around 50 GIMA and GCA members took part in an online forum in July – a virtual conference that paved the way for an even split of retailers and suppliers to share experiences of managing their businesses throughout lockdown and in the new socially distanced retail environment, discussing topical issues in a frank, open and honest manner.

Forums such as this represent much more than online networking. Suppliers have a tendency to keep their heads down and battle through a crisis in isolation, largely unaware that many others are also experiencing similar difficulties. Stock shortages and increased lead times have inevitably led to frustration for retailers, too. Bringing suppliers and retailers together to discuss these challenges promoted a greater sense of understanding between all parties, improving working relationships and identifying solutions to obstacles that are still being thrown in the way of normality.

Let’s examine suppliers’ predicament first. Delegates at the online forum heard how orders for core gardening supplies, which would traditionally tail-off slightly by mid-summer, were still coming in thick and fast during May, June and July – a level of demand far above and beyond anything that suppliers have ever witnessed before. Suppliers told how every order that hit their books was a pre-season size order, placing further strain on operations and resulting in considerable increases in lead times.

Suppliers had to work their way through order banks, dividing-up stock to ensure that it was distributed evenly among customer bases, so the full spectrum of retailers could receive fair deliveries. This was hampered by issues within the supply chain that supports suppliers, with the post-lockdown environment presenting difficulties in getting hold of essential materials. For example, triggers for spray guns were in short supply, packaging for compost ran out and quarries that had been closed during lockdown struggled to meet demand for landscaping materials upon reopening. At one point earlier this season, the lead time for compost was between five and seven weeks.

Under normal circumstances, the supply chain operates like a well-oiled machine, utilising efficient logistics and a workforce lined-up to meet traditional peaks in demand that surface around Easter and bank holidays. This year, suppliers had to address even higher levels of demand while managing reduced productivity, an inevitable consequence of essential social distancing, combined with the challenges of bringing employees back from furlough. It has been a perfect storm of obstacles that conspired against getting deliveries out of the door.

Frustration from retailers has been understandable and the online forum offered suppliers an insight into retailers’ predicament this season. Retailers who urgently required stock experienced difficulty in getting through to suppliers, as a proportion of teams were yet to return from furlough (similarly, suppliers struggled to make contact with retailers, who were inundated with handling customer enquiries for online orders and home deliveries). Plus, the re-opening of garden centres led to a surge in demand not only from retailers’ existing customer base, but from a raft of new consumers who had discovered gardening during lockdown – further piling on the pressure to satisfy the needs of fresh faces that represent a new generation of garden centre customers.

Communication holds the key to maintaining strong supplier-retailer relationships during this fast-moving and unpredictable crisis. Retailers involved in the online forum stated a preference for weekly stock availability updates from suppliers, calling on the supply chain for openness and transparency where problems arise. With little let-up in demand as we head into an autumn of heightened interest in gardening, maintaining channels of communication between suppliers and retailers remains vital.

Trade associations come into their own during a crisis, and GIMA will continue to pull out all the stops to support members during these incredibly difficult times. GIMA and its partners are planning further online forums to bring suppliers and retailers together, with the aim of helping the autumn season to flow as smoothly as possible. Never before has the dialogue expressed within virtual meetings been so critical to everyone’s interests.