Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Garden centres hoping for festive rush after lockdown

Garden centres hoping for festive rush after lockdown

GARDEN centres are hoping to hit the ground running when the second national lockdown ends next month.

They missed out on 10 weeks of business earlier this year when the Government classified them as a non-essential shop, so had to close.

When they were allowed to
re-open in May, there was huge interest from regular customers as well as people who had taken up gardening as a hobby.

Although garden centres have been able to remain open during the latest lockdown, which ends on Wednesday, trade has not been as good as some would have liked.

Now owners are preparing themselves for the important pre-Christmas boost as they look to make up for lost time.

Toad Hall Garden Centre in Marlow Road, Henley, continues to be open seven days a week with coronavirus safety measures in place.

Owner Tristan Stubbs said: “It was quite slow to start with because people were cautious. As we move towards Christmas, things are starting to pick up.

“It will be an important couple of weeks when we do come out of the lockdown.

“Plants will still be a big part of the business as people look to get their gardens ready for the winter.

“We are following all the guidelines and we have a rule of four. Other places have gone further than that but it goes against what we want to provide. It is a family place and people will want to visit as a family.

“We will limit numbers and will have a queuing system. We keep it well ventilated and face masks have to be worn.”

Toad Hall’s Santa’s grotto, which would normally be set up with the help of Henley Lions Club, will not be returning this year.

The café was closed permanently at the beginning of the first lockdown, which meant there were some redundancies. Other staff were furloughed initially but the full team is needed at the moment.

Mr Stubbs said: “People being stuck at home and gaining a new interest in gardening has definitely helped. Until we get through the rest of the year, it is hard to say how it will pan out. We’ve had good months but then we lost 10 weeks of our most important trading period. We were in the middle of a pandemic and the Government decided we couldn’t be open.

“The problem was that the supermarkets started selling plants and compost. The big DIY stores were also selling plants, weed killer and lawn fertiliser and they were allowed to stay open and that was the hard part.

“However, I totally support what the Government was trying to do. The furlough scheme was a massive help to our business and helped to protect jobs.

“We couldn’t open the coffee shop in a safe way but when there is a change with covid we would like to open it up again.

“We are ticking over but there is nothing nice about this situation.”

The Herb Farm in Sonning Common will be open every day in the run-up to Christmas Eve.

Site manager Vicky Goodwin is feeling positive as the garden centre enters an important time of year.

“A lot of it is about people feeling happy,” she said. “We are very safe and people can feel relaxed when they come in here compared to visiting the high street — it is a completely different world.

“We are here for the people and we want them to have a nice shopping experience.

“It is nice for us to grab a little bit of the revenue that we lost during the first lockdown. In the first few days of this lockdown, things were very quiet.

“I suppose people were just taking heed of what they’d been told to do by the Government. I think people have started to get a bit bored and want to do more things. A lot more people are walking to the garden centre now instead of driving and it is getting busier and busier by the week.

“Our customers are very friendly anyway and we know lots of them by their first names, but I think this year has cemented that relationship.”

During the first lockdown, plants were delivered to the homes of
customers.

Staff wear gloves, face masks and plastic visors and surfaces are sanitised regularly. A maximum of 20 people are allowed in at once.

Mrs Goodwin said: “We are very pleased and grateful that we have been able to stay open this time.

“In the grand scheme of things, the industry has taken a massive hit this year. It will be an okay year for us — we will have lost revenue but we are surviving and as a company we are striving to go forward and making orders for next year.”

Hare Hatch Sheeplands, near Wargrave, has benefited from offering a home delivery service through its farm shop.

However, trade at the plant nursery has been very quiet.

Co-owner Andy Dicks said: “When the lockdown started, business just dropped off a cliff and it has been quiet ever since.

“Even though we are on the list of essential shops, I don’t think the message has got through clearly, particularly among the older generation.

“A lot of our customers are surprised when I tell them the garden centre is open as normal if they want to buy any plants, Christmas trees and decorations. Having to close the coffee shop was a big thing for us. We had just rebuilt the confidence and trade was going really well — we had our best week of the year just before lockdown.

“We can’t wait to get it re-opened because it is such an important part of the business.”

He is optimistic about what December will do for business. Families have been invited to pre-book slots for Santa’s grotto with the help of the Rotary Club of Reading Maiden Erlegh.

Mr Dicks added: “This time of the year would normally be very busy. Christmas sales pick up dramatically and we have a shop with everything you would want, including socks, slippers, trees and lights.

“We are still going ahead with our socially distanced grotto and it is an open area to comply with the guidelines. We’ve got everything geared up and we have taken a lot of bookings already.

“It is a good sign that people are going to come back when lockdown finishes and hopefully we will have a relatively normal run-up to Christmas. We are pinning a lot of hopes on that.

“All things considered, we have done well overall because of the level of business we were able to do with the home delivery service. We’ve had hundreds of new customers and that will make a massive difference.

“It has doubled our farm shop business and they’ve stuck with us. Some of them now visit the shop in person.”

Woodcote Nursery and Garden Centre did not close during the first lockdown as it sells fuel as well as pet supplies and hardware products.

Mike Hill, who has owned the business for 25 years and lives on site with his family, says business has been “steady and reliable”.

He said: “The limit of stock has held us back and we are still struggling with certain items. Some of our suppliers are focusing on the more profitable lines. We’ve struggled for rocks, pebbles and wheelbarrows.

“Apart from that, we are pretty much back up to where we were this time last year. The Christmas trees are just about to come in. We have gone for the same amount as last year in the hope that we sell them.

“With a lot more people working from home, they have started to enjoy gardening and they are spending more money because they aren’t going on holiday.”

Mr Hill does not think business will improve too much when the lockdown ends.

He said: “Because we are such a small garden centre, I don’t think it will make much difference. We sell trees and wreaths for Christmas but very little else.”

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