Going paperless in a post-pandemic economy

With the nation embracing gardening during the COVID-19 lockdown, Chris Fisher, UK operations director at ECI, looks at how retailers can simplify their back-office operations to prepare for spring 2021

Garden centres certainly received more mainstream press coverage than usual in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the crisis worsened, and non-essential shops closed their doors, garden retailers faced the bleak prospect of having to throw away perishable stock that had taken months to grow, despite high demand from the public. It was, however, heartening to see the outpouring of support on social media and the speed at which some centres began selling their plants online and delivering to local customers.

Seasoned and novice gardeners alike found solace in creating attractive outdoor spaces during these uncertain times, so it’s perhaps no surprise that viewing figures for Gardeners’ World reached record highs of 3.6 million. When garden centres reopened again, we saw images of people queuing around carparks waiting to get in and fill up on plants. This will likely be the case again following the second national lockdown.

Although clearly welcome, there are challenges to contend with too. Social distancing and frequent cleaning are non-negotiable, of course; yet these measures put extra pressure on staff who have to manage it, and require investment in new signage, barriers and extra cleaning products.

This is why anyone looking to capitalise on customers’ appetite for gardening will first need to make sure every part of the business is working as efficiently as possible. When your centre is full of people looking for advice on plants, the last thing you want is for staff to be stuck in the office, looking for a customer order or supplier invoice that has been filed away. After all, it’s valuable time that could be better spent refreshing displays, re-stocking shelves, upselling or even running in-store tutorials – all tasks that create new sales opportunities and add value to your service.

Using a central platform to manage documents electronically is an effective way of reducing unnecessary admin for staff and could help off-set some of the additional costs you might now be incurring. Given that a team of 25 can spend more than £13k on paper (including wasted sheets) a year, the savings are already significant before factoring in the cost of toner and printer maintenance.Using a central platform to manage documents electronically is an effective way of reducing unnecessary admin for staff and could help off-set some of the additional costs you might now be incurring.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it is estimated that office staff lose one in 20 documents. As well as the obvious security risks this brings, the time spent looking for them equates to £95 per sheet.

Reducing your reliance on paper brings other benefits for your garden centre. Those with trade customers can speed up payments and improve cashflow by sending invoices electronically. Not only do you save on paper and postage, you can also be confident none have slipped through the net.

Stocking the right products is critical at the moment and sifting through last year’s sales records may not tell you what people are looking for right now. Trends are ever-changing and now, thanks to lockdown, buyer behaviour will be different too. You may see people buying in bulk as they finally embark on ambitious gardening projects, or younger customers inspired by what they’ve seen on Instagram.

By storing your documents centrally, you can access them along with other key information from your mobile. Knowing exactly what inventory you’ve got in one store or across multiple sites tells you what’s selling well, so you can make fast but informed decisions when placing an order with wholesalers. This means you’re able to meet current demand without ending up with surplus stock.

COVID-19 has caused widespread disruption to the garden retail sector, and wider economy, and making efficiencies may prove crucial in recouping revenue from when centres were closed.

A good document management system is the backbone of any successful business, helping to keep printing costs down and improve everything from purchasing decisions, customer service and cashflow. No matter how small it seems, any inefficiency is costly. By ironing them out now, you’ll have a strong foundation on which to drive sales and increase loyalty, putting you on the path to future growth.

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