Everything in the garden is – profitable?
Twenty-one years after decking sales took off, thanks to the BBC’s ‘Ground Force’ programme, the category has been joined by an array of other garden products with profit potential for merchants. What are the likely best sellers for summer 2018, and what advice can merchants profitably give to their customers?
Gavin Knowles, Marketing Manager at Howarth Timber & Building Supplies, relates what they are promoting across their multiple-branch network: “Garden sleepers are definitely part of the trend to extend the living and entertaining space outdoors for homeowners. Oak sleepers are in fashion, matching the versatility of oak flooring and doors, as well as providing continuity between outdoor and indoor spaces. The price differential between oak and pine sleepers is, these days, a minimal concern and people are trading up to get the oak look they desire.
“With many more people working from home, timber offices and even gyms are becoming more popular outdoor garden features; gone are the days when sheds were the only buying option,” Gavin Knowles continues. “We have introduced a range of ‘build your own’ garden buildings, a low cost option for customers, which has been well received. Additionally, with many more people now having a log-burning stove in the house, there’s a need for log stores. They’re not a volume seller yet, but we do see an opportunity in offering them.”
In the fast-paced garden market, are there ways to maximise sales in the short British summers? “At Howarth Timber & Building Supplies, we have a strong customer base segment of landscapers. We’re able to offer arbours, trellis or pergolas on next-day delivery from our storage hub, even if they’re not held in-branch,” Gavin Knowles relates. “Landscapers can order from the brochure or online. In fencing we’re seeing an interesting twist: wood composite fencing is now entering the market, possibly to match wood composite decking. For the householder it’s all about ease of living. If they can devote more time to enjoyment rather than maintaining fences, they will take the opportunity.”
Fencing was one of the markets whose tight supply situation was highlighted at the Timber Trade Federation’s UK Softwood Conference in March. Lee Johnson, Director at bulk importers Evans Bellhouse, echoes the views of many in the field: “The British mills have not been getting the type of logs in that they need for production. Lead times on fencing are becoming extended, and we haven’t so far had a major storm or weather incident, which usually drives up demand. Merchants would be advised to move early to secure both fencing and sleeper supplies.
“British-grown sawn material is already in short supply for garden sleepers,” Lee Johnson adds. “Having worked with Latvian mills over the past 20 years, developing close working relationships, we’re now looking to Latvia for satisfying our customers’ sleeper requirements this year. Latvian sleepers look slightly more ‘rustic’ but in some cases that could be a marketing advantage. Turn-around on Latvian orders is a lot quicker than the lead times we’re being quoted by British mills at the moment.”
With fence posts, another solid sales category for merchants, the key to repeat business is selling an effective product, treated to be reliable in use, as Martin Batts, Timber Sales Director at home-grown timber producers Balcas, explains: “Ensuring timber used for fence posts is treated to the correct standard is essential for any timber and builders merchant. You should be looking for products that are treated to BS8417 Use Class 4 – ground contact. At Balcas, we first developed timber incising technology in the early 1970s. Incising allows greater penetration of treatment preservative and is the basis for producing our range of square and round Permapost®UC4i Incised Posts.
“We first select and then incise our home grown spruce. Incisions are cut into the timber by multiple fine saw cuts at varying angles to an area well above and well below where the post comes into ground contact (the vulnerable area for a post),” Martin Batts says. “The posts are then carefully kiln dried to around 28% moisture content. If it’s dried too quickly, or to a moisture content that’s too low, then the spruce timber cells will not take up the maximum amount of preservative solution. It is this combination of incising, kilning and applying a strengthened preservative over a longer pressure period, which helps us to produce a post with a 15 year desired service life. To finish off each Balcas incised UC4i Permapost® we add the year of manufacture and offer a 15-year warranty.”
Sell with confidence
Understanding what you’re selling is a critical factor with garden products. “Every merchant member of staff dealing with ‘treated timber’, for garden or other products, should be made aware that timber treatments fall into different Use Classes,” says David Hopkins, managing director of the Timber Trade Federation. “Any wood product that will come into permanent or regular contact with the ground must be treated to Use Class 4 – ground contact. The colouring of the treatment, for example ‘green’ or ‘brown’, is not what matters. Ask your supplier for proof that the material has received Use Class 4 treatment, and make sure your staff know that cut ends, for example when decking is cut to size, must be re-sealed using an end-grain sealant, to maintain the integrity of the treatment in the long-term. This will help to avoid customer complaints and promotes your reputation as a knowledgeable firm to deal with.”
[This feature is by Communications Consultant Camilla Hair]