Garden centres hoping the long Easter weekend would bring a turn in the weather after the coldest March in 50 years were disappointed. The bitter conditions persisted over what should be one of their busiest periods, and ripped into sales.
However, garden retailers are generally upbeat about the coming season, pointing to the fact that they remain popular places to visit and to the high level of pent-up demand.
Garden Centre Association chairman Peter Burks told DIY Week that most members saw increased footfall over Easter, but he suspects turnover will be down by between 30 and 50%. "There were plenty of people visiting our member garden centres during Easter but most had come in for a wander round, a cuppa in the restaurant or to pick up a gift," he said. "They aren't even walking around outside when it's as cold as it has been."
He said catering and gift sales were up, but plants, add-ons like composts and pots, and projects such as landscaping had all suffered.
"The bad March has completed 12 months of poor weather for us," he went on, but he thought lost sales could still be made up. "I think there is time - but it all depends when the weather changes. What's really encouraging," he added, "is that footfall is still decent and people are interested in coming to the garden centre still. It means they want to shop with us - it's just getting the weather and the balance of goods right."
Speaking to DIY Week just before Easter, Homebase managing director Paul Loft was also optimistic. "Obviously March hasn't been great," he said, "but April to June is when our bulk plant season falls. Even if Easter sales aren't great, I believe the spend will carry on over into the following few months. People are dying to get back into their gardens after last year."
And at Lumby Garden Centre in Leeds, owner Gordon Thompson made the same point. "The combination of an early Easter, the cold winds and snow have let the side down," he said. "Footfall was down by a third but we sold quite a bit of garden furniture, strangely, and seeds right through to fertilisers and composts. The main area that was hit was the outside area, the shrubs and perennials, because it was so bitterly cold. But I'm sure we'll make it up - everybody says they're just dying to get going."
And garden businesses badly need them to get that opportunity. The HTA Garden Retail Monitor unsurprisingly confirms that it has not been a great start to the year for the industry.
It shows that garden centre trade was down by 8% to the end of February, with January down 15% on January 2012 and February down 1% (although January 2012 was 10% up on January 2011, so in comparison with 2011 January sales were down 5%). And, says the HTA, the wintry weather is likely to have had a huge impact on the March figures.
Said HTA director general Carol Paris: "It's a waiting game at the moment. It remains to be seen how spring will play out and whether it will be the beginning of a much-needed recovery in consumer garden spending. However, it's clear that the longer it takes for the weather to improve the smaller the window of opportunity for garden retailers to attract consumers to spend."
The cold weather has done no favours for DIY retailers either, and Easter sales at Kirkby DIY in Liverpool were "considerably down", according to owner George Jones. "But I don't think it was just the weather," he said. "People haven't got the cash they used to have, and DIY is something you can shelve."