NFU Countryside July 2020 - Covid 19

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As garden centres re-open after weeks of shutdown due to Covid-19, Lorna Maybery looks at what this means for both businesses and customers

WHEN THE GOVERNMENT announced a couple of weeks ago that garden centres could re-open, there was a collective sigh of relief, not just from the businesses themselves, but also from a nation with time of its hands and a pressing need for seasonal plants.

With flowers and plants back on the shopping list, here’s how some businesses have coped with the Covid-19 shut-down and the challenges of re-opening once more.

Maytree Garden Centre and Nursery

Brian May, who owns Maytree Nursery and Garden Centre near Faversham, Kent, said when they were forced to close the nursery they kept two staff in place to water and nurture the plants, but some bedding plants had to be thrown away.

“We grow 20,000 of our own perennials and most of these were fine, but we did suffer a significant financial loss and cancelled a couple of orders for 7,400 plugs and 9,000 geraniums,” says Brian.

During March and April, Brian and his chief staff member Neil Etheridge set up an email and phone-in ordering system for customers and made local deliveries, which they had never done before.

“Luckily, this kept us afloat and we couldn’t keep up with the orders,” he says. He adds that the government decision to allow the re-opening of his business was absolutely critical.

“Customers have been saying how wonderful it is to have the garden centre open again,” he adds, “and the car park has been full.”

Customers are also coping well with the social distancing measures, he says. There’s a clear entrance and exit and customers are asked to go down each isle while staying two metres apart.

 

The two metre distancing rule is also in place when queuing to pay and there are clear lines marked on the ground to help with this.

Visitors are told to wait to be called to the checkout, where staff on the tills wear gloves and face masks, and everyone is also being asked to pay by card.

Trolley handles are wiped with disinfectant and always returned to the same place to ensure cleaning after each use, and hand sanitiser is available to all.

“Life almost feels normal, and everyone was smiling and happy,” says Brian.

NFU-Hilliers

Hillier Garden Centres

Hillier Garden Centres, which are situated throughout the south of the UK, have implemented two-metre social distancing, added sanitiser stations, a one-way system and card payments only. It has been challenging, says director of Hillier Garden Centres, Chris Francis, but staff are working hard to ensure customer safety and visitors are happy to be able to browse plants once more.

“We are pleased with how our re-opening is going,” says Chris. “Customer feedback has been very positive about the new social distancing measures, with queuing to enter and one-way systems around the garden centres, as well as many other new measures.

“The teams have all been working extremely hard to ensure social distancing and make sure all staff and customers are safe at all times. Safety has to be the top priority, so it’s been really great to see reviews and hear direct from customers on how safe they have felt shopping with Hillier.

“Gardening plays such a vital role in both our physical and mental health and wellbeing, we know how important it is for our customers to keep active and enjoy their outdoor space at this time. It’s wonderful to see so many of them able to do this again safely.”

Hartley’s Nurseries

Ann-Louise Hartley, who runs Hartley’s Nurseries in Merseyside with her husband Bill, says that having an existing online shop enabled them to cope with the closure of their business better than some.

“We had a web shop mainly for flowers and bouquets, but had never put our plants online,” says Ann-Louise. “But the night we were told to close, my daughter Annabel and I sat up and loaded our web shop with our own grown plants.

“We had greenhouses full of 10,000 plants, so it was devastating; what were we going to do with all these plants? We kept one florist with us, and then, next day, as the orders flooded in, we needed more, so called another worker in. We didn’t have a driver and realised taxi drivers were suffering badly, so I rang a taxi driver I knew and said, do you want to drive our van? Eventually, we were filling four vans every day and delivering in a 20-mile radius around the Liverpool area.

“It’s calming down now as we have re-opened, but that has brought new challenges. Everyone was so grateful when we opened. There was a lot to do, though, to prepare. We put up Perspex screens around the tills, set up a one-way system, taped up the floor, and built a queuing system outside.

“We have a man on the door regulating people through, trolleys need to be cleaned and handles wiped, so it’s quite a job.

“There’s no moaning from customers about having to queue, but some people haven’t quite understood the two-metre rule. People are so pleased to see you that they want to chat, which is lovely but I find myself backing away from people as they get too close. Some are being really careful, and others don’t seem bothered at all!”

 

 

A FAMILY AFFAIR:  The Hartley family from left, Annabel, Bill, Ann-Louise and Tom, who is a furloughed Lancashire county cricket player happy to help out the family business

New World Plants

Although garden centres are now open, those businesses at the start of the plant supply chain are finding it challenging to get back up and running.

Rod Richards is managing director of New World Plants, which supplies young plants to wholesalers. He joined the NFU campaign to get garden centres re-opened, saying: “If ever there was a time in our country to turn neglected run-down gardens into something beautiful and enhance existing gardens in the same way – while we have time on our hands – it’s now.”

And although he is relieved garden centres have reopened, he says the plants he has ordered have nowhere to go as wholesalers don’t have the space for more stock.

“We breed and introduce new varieties of plants and supply the wholesale growers, who grow them on, and ultimately sell them to garden centres,” he explains.

“Most wholesale nurseries would have given us orders last September to supply them in spring with these young plants.

“The consequences for us are that we have lost about 80% of sales because they have been cancelled. Most wholesale nurseries are, at the beginning of spring, jam-packed with plant material so those nurseries were full. No stock going out, means no space for the plants ordered from us last October.”

Rod says he is grateful that there’s some of the season left, but is concerned about the implications for next year.

“I am worried wholesalers might be extra cautious, either because they haven’t got enough space, or because they haven’t got enough cash, or they are uncertain what the trading will be in garden centres next year. Perhaps a mixture of all of those!”

NFU - Countryside July 2020

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