Garden centers play catch-up after late start to spring season

Garden centers play catch-up after late start to spring season

Although many independent garden centers reported sales shortfalls in April, customer traffic has improved in May.

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An unusually cold, snowy April for many garden centers across the country has led to a very condensed spring selling season, with many retailers playing catch up and hoping to make up for losses.

April 2018 was one of the coldest on record, and some areas had record-breaking snow accumulations, as well. According to The Weather Channel, there were 40 locations in 13 states in the Midwest, Northeast, Plains and even the South that experienced record-breaking cold when compared to past Aprils, after the official start of spring. 

Danny Summers, managing director of The Garden Center Group, says most independent garden center clients, who share their sales data with one another weekly through a financial program managed by consultant Steve Bailey, have reported spring delays by as much as four weeks. 

“Centers are laser-focused on making every sale count, meeting every possible customer need,” Summers says. “Week 18 (April 30-May 6) was the first week we have seen all regions up over same week last year. Only three regions were up year-to-date as of week 18; South (does not include Southeast), Northwest/British Columbia and Mountains West.”

Collectively, the stated regions above were up 8 to 14 percent, while the Garden Center Group’s other reporting regions – Southeast, Ohio, New York/Ontario, Northeast, Midwest and Mid Atlantic – were down more than 4 percent to 17 percent, Summers says. 

Of the 120-plus Garden Center Group clients, about 98 shared their spring sales reports, Summers says. 

The green pins on the map above indicate locations of Garden Center Group members. Courtesy of the Garden Center Group.

“But we are seeing huge gains in just one week,” he says. For example, in week 19 (May 7-13), 85 percent of reporting members saw an increase in revenues. Year-to-date-sales vs. last year were up 3.8 percent, the average sale was up 3.9 percent and customer count was only down less than 1 percent. 

“The real question is, how much business can they push through in a short period of time?” Summers says. “Do they have stock to satisfy this compressed season? I don’t expect us to see a normal 12-week season just because we started late.”

Sandi Hillermann McDonald, president of Hillermann Nursery & Florist, says her Washington, Mo., store was down at the end of April, and though it will be difficult to make up those losses, she’s hopeful. 

“April was the worst I can remember in weather since I have been in business,” McDonald says. “May has started like gangbusters, and we are in a great place today. I hope it continues to flow this way, and I may have my chance of making back our early spring losses.”

Greenscape Gardens, about a half hour drive from Hillermann and just outside of St. Louis, Mo., had a similar start to spring, says Jennifer Schamber, general manager. Then things turned around in a big way.

“We’ve had the nuttiest two weeks we’ve seen in the history of this industry,” Schamber said the Friday before Mother’s Day, adding that in that short time frame, they not only made up for the losses at the beginning of the season, but have surpassed last year’s spring sales. “There was so much pent up spring fever … [customer] landscaping budgets seem to be higher.”

Consumer demand for native plants has also been strong, she says, and they are quickly running out of their custom combination planters, whether they planted with annuals or succulents.

Mother’s Day was successful for many, including Molbak’s Garden + Home in Woodinville, Wash.

“April was slow, but May has been terrific. Molbak’s Mother’s Day week was the best we’ve had in at least ten years,” says Julie Kouhia, CEO. “And sales continue to be strong this week (week of May 14), even though the weather has cooled.”

Over on the East Coast, Hicks Nurseries in Long Island, N.Y., enjoyed a “fantastic” Mother’s Day Weekend, says Nate Jackson, vice president of operations at Hicks. Although sales started picking up earlier in May, Hicks Nurseries, like many IGCs, had a rough start to its spring season, putting them in a position to try and make up for lost business.

“Up until last week, it's been... I think 'miserable' is an understatement as Long Island weather has been incredibly bad from a standpoint of temperature and precipitation. Last week, things kind of broke for us. We had a phenomenal week last week, and we're up about 30 percent year over year. We're definitely behind the eight ball, so we've got a lot of catching up to do late this month and certainly into next month.”

Rocky start aside, Jackson says the Hicks team is confident that their season is off and running now, with many opportunities to close the gap in June. Mother’s Day weekend may have been the boost they needed to get rolling.

“We're still optimistic, especially after the results last week - people still want to get out, they still want to plant,” Jackson says. “[Mother’s Day weekend] definitely got us back on track to catch up with last year. We've got a lot of runway here and I feel like June is going to be an exceptional month, especially if weather turns for us.”

Frank Benzing, president and CEO of SummerWinds Nursery, with three locations in the Silicon Valley region of California and three in Arizona, says sales are stronger as California enters its second year of drought recovery. 

“We closed down three stores, but we’ve had solid customer migration. Overall, our existing stores are up just over double digits through Mother’s Day,” Benzing says. “We’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy higher foot traffic and average sale increases with the stronger economy. We’re very lucky to have enough moisture in Northern California for two years, which has made a difference in customer psychology. As ‘retail farmers,’ everything has been in our favor.”

April was challenging in Dallas, too, says Mark Ruibal, vice president of sales and marketing for Ruibal’s Plants of Texas. 

“April was tough. On three of our normally peak Saturdays (in a row) we had sub 40-degree temps,” Ruibal says. “Sales on those days was cut nearly in half, but luckily, weekdays were better than normal. We ended April down a good bit. May started well, and Mother’s Day was above average. We're nearly back to where we should be, but now we're looking at a warmer than normal second half of May, so we'll see where that takes us.”

In the Houston area, Nelson Water Gardens & Nursery has also suffered from uncooperative weather. Unseasonable cold spells throughout the spring have slowed traffic considerably, says President Rolf Nelson.

"We were up slightly in April. We were dramatically down in the months prior to that,” Nelson says. “It was an unusually cold winter for this area, as I think it was for most of the country. Typically, we start to see a resurgence of business in March that really just didn't happen. We just didn't have the weather in our favor.”

Elsewhere in the south, late-winter freeze events may have actually benefitted Mother’s Day sales at Perino’s Home & Garden Center in Metairie, La., according to a manager at the store.

"I think the weather has a made a huge difference this year,” the manager reported. “Due to the freeze, everybody lost so many of their tropicals and everybody had to replace [them], so I think the weather played a major role in this year's [sales]."

Companies are hoping to recover their losses in May, and looking at the overall numbers from the Garden Center Group, it could be possible for many. Sales were down compared with 2017 by 15 percent in week 16 on average, but by week 19, Group clients reported that sales were up by nearly 4 percent year-to-date. 

“By seeing these numbers, you can see how I expect the overall group to be up by another week,” Summers says. Garden centers are also reporting “record-breaking single days and record-breaking weeks. It’s mind boggling that you could be down for 14 or 15 weeks and be off by so much, and then make up for it over a two- to three-week period; I hope it continues, it sure is a good sign right now.”

Photo: Greenscape Gardens on Friday, May 11. Michelle Simakis