A prosperous year for horticulture in 2021 sets the scene for growth in 2022 - but challenges must be overcome

by Kristin Tadlock

2021 sales figures were strong despite economic and other challenges 

Data from the horticulture's leading trade association shows that 2021 was another incredibly strong year for garden centre retailers despite the double impact of post-Brexit trade restrictions and the pandemic. 

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA)'s latest Market Update report shows that whilst many sectors have seen profits damaged after businesses wrestled with a host of challenges and negative effects, horticultural businesses were one of a handful of success stories for the UK economy in 2021. 

Despite a host of Covid restrictions, total garden centre sales for the year were up 23 percent from 2020 and up 36 percent from 2019. Within this, garden/gardening sales were up 32 percent on 2020 and up 65 percent on 2019. This is likely due to the increased demand for garden products, with HTA research showing that pandemic gardeners broadly staying engaged in their new hobby. Garden centre catering sales for the year did however decline by 59 percent from 2019 as restrictions on hospitality saw garden centres unable to operate their catering services at full capacity. Still, with nearly 60 percent of people in the UK having had their booster jab as of 3 January 2022, members are hoping that consumers will return to restaurants and cafes in greater numbers in the year ahead.  

Consumers faced financial strain and potential health risks 

When considered against the backdrop of the increased financial strains faced by consumers last year, these sales figures are impressive. Consumer financial confidence remained relatively low in 2021 though considerably higher than in March 2020 and following the 2008 financial crisis; decreasing by only one point in December 2021 despite the looming threat of record high inflation, fuel price increases and general living expenses rising. 

In the final month of 2021, Christmas category sales in garden centres were strong, up 33 percent on December 2020 and up 17 percent on 2019. Catering sales for the month of December were up 54 percent from December 2020, when lockdown restricted indoor dining, but down 41 percent from December 2019, pre-pandemic. This is likely because of concern about the spread of the Omicron variant in the lead up to Christmas.  

Fear of increased regulations and restrictions in 2022 could stifle growth plans 

Looking to the year ahead, it seems there is a mood of cautious optimism. HTA member research shows that growers and retailers are committed to investing in their businesses (49 percent plan to invest in new infrastructure, buildings and facilities in 2022), but they remain concerned that extra cost burdens and regulations could stifle this ambition. As our quarterly Member Voice tracking showed, positive business outlook steadily declined quarter on quarter throughout 2021. With post-Brexit costs associated with importing plants increasing by between £25m and £50m last year, the price of shipping containers doubling over 2021, along with higher inflation, increasing wage costs and labour shortages coming through in 2022 it is likely to be a challenging year of business pressures. Around one in twenty roles garden centres and ornamental grower firms are unfilled, meaning recruitment and retention will be a key factor in 2022 for how well members grow their businesses.  

David Denny, Futures and Sustainability Manager at the HTA, said: “Last year was a strong one for horticulture. Participation in gardening that exploded in 2020 during the lockdown was, mostly, sustained through 2021. Looking to 2022, continuing higher costs for importing and exporting plants is a specific government-initiated burden on our industry, as well similar headwinds to those facing the wider UK economy, be that inflation of costs and competition for labour and skills. Despite this, our member businesses continue to lead the UK’s green recovery and are investing in future growth." 

The HTA will continue to advocate for the needs of our sector, as well as increasing our guidance and advice to members to help them navigate the regulatory challenges they face, as well as provide business development opportunities including learning and development.