The Palace Gardener is a quaint garden centre in the heart of Fulham, West London. A traditional centre, it relies on the season we’re now in to make money. We speak with Jorge Rodriguez-Martin, the general manager of the store about why he thinks garden centres are an essential business and what will happen to The Palace Gardener once lockdown is lifted.
Usually operating with up to 15 staff members at this time of year, The Palace Gardener has reduced its numbers to a skeleton team of four to maintain the centre and keep plants alive. The doors are closed to the public, and depending on how long those doors must remain bolted, the business may need some help. Jorge explains: “If this continues for a long time, it won’t be possible for us to cope without support from the bank. That would lead us into debt which would take a significant time to repay. These are the most important months of the year when we make most of our money to pay for staff and all our outgoings during the slower parts of the year. Our only hope is December, it’s the only other time we make up the shortfall with the Christmas campaign.”
Although the centre isn’t open, that hasn’t stopped it from operating. Jorge and his team have implemented a telephone and email order service, which allows customers to pick up their goods from outside the gate with no human contact. The business is also doing twice-weekly local deliveries to their customers, too. Again, this is a drop-off situation, so no human contact is needed.
But can Jorge see the business using this revenue stream in the future? He says: “Until things fully go back to normal, and we don’t know when that will happen, this is the only way we can trade. If things go back to normal, with normal being quite an open concept, this service is very time-consuming. We were not set up for this before the pandemic, so there may be plans to set this up properly. But if everything does go back to normal, we should then be trading normally as well. Inevitably, this isn’t going to stop here.”
When normality resumes, Jorge does see a strong future for the industry. He says horticulture is a necessity, with edibles produced and huge employment numbers within the industry, but he also understands the benefits that gardening brings to the public, especially for mental health. He explains: “. First of all, people are now stuck in their homes, so they realise what they want to improve. There will be people with children at home that need to take those children into the garden to play and learn about horticulture. For elderly people and people with mental health issues, which is a wide concept, there’s nothing better than enjoying the little bit of outdoors that they have, so it becomes a necessity because everyone’s needs have changed. Our needs are around the place that we live in. The advantage that garden centres have is open space. The social distancing rules will have to be put in place but there’s an opportunity for people to still browse plants, enjoy the look and the scent of plants, and for the business to somehow recover a little bit.”
But what about the business Jorge works for? As a traditional garden centre, The Palace Gardener relies on a strong gardening season. The business has been through a period of growth recently, and the team there have been really proud of its efforts to get the business to where it was pre-pandemic. Jorge says: “Apart from the pandemic, or up until the point the pandemic hit, we were growing really well as a business. We were quite happy with our results so far. It will take us a while to get back to where we were since we’ve not been able to open. If we manage to open with new rules, customers may feel nervous about visiting a garden centre. People in general are going to be short of cash so maybe their garden might be an area they don’t spend as much on as they had planned. It’s stopped us in our tracks. We’re going to have to start from the back again. When we open, it’ll be interesting to see how the public reacts.”
And Jorge has some advice he’d like to share to all small businesses in this sector. “My advice is very humble, I’m not sure I can advise people. But I see an opportunity for everybody to fight hard to get garden centres open and to where we were before. It’s a much-needed service for mental health and to give people something to do outside other than visiting a supermarket to buy food. Small retailers in this industry need to persevere, we can’t let all that we’ve done go to waste.”
Whilst the future for the garden retail remains murky, The Palace Gardener is doing all it can to make their little corner of London greener and healthier. And with a little luck, when lockdown is lifted, it will continue to do so.