REOPENING OUR GARDEN CENTRES

On Wednesday 13th May The Gardens Group at Castle Gardens in Sherborne, Brimsmore Gardens in Yeovil and Poundbury Gardens in Dorchester will reopen its doors. Things won’t be the same though, as before we closed, so I wanted to share some of the new measures and systems we’re putting into place.

A NEW SHOPPING EXPERIENCE

In order to reopen, we have agreed a set of protocols with the government to ensure that we can keep customers and our teams safe. This includes a limited number of customers on site at any one time, separate entrance and exit doors and one-way systems both as you enter and when you queue to go through the tills.

We have erected screens at the tills and would prefer to only take credit card payments. We will also have a drive-through compost shop for those who just need a few bags.

Some services will be limited, but if you have a query about a plant ailment then a picture of the problem via email is usually enough for us to be able to give you the correct diagnosis. Please bear in mind that we may not be able to give as detailed advice as before in store, for reasons of social distancing and because of our limited staff numbers.

We, like all businesses, are reduced in staff numbers, as team members who are vulnerable, have vulnerable family or have children, just can’t be with us. We also won’t be able to restock the shelves in the one-way systems until after we close each afternoon and that will further stretch the teams.

To make it easier for you to plan your shopping, we have produced a plan of each site so that your list can be in the right order.

OUR TELEPHONE ORDERING SERVICE

As we have been over the past six weeks, we will still be operating our telephone ordering and free delivery service to look after those who are stuck at home.

Such orders can’t be picked until after customers have gone home, so with this in mind, to begin with we will open with reduced hours of 9am until 4pm Monday to Friday and 10 until 4.30 on Sundays.

As customers return to our garden centres and pressure lifts off the delivery system, we will be able to start taking orders for home delivery via email as well.

WORKING THROUGH THE LOCKDOWN

When we closed on March 23rd we had a decision to make as a business; to close completely and furlough all staff (the most financially viable option) or to continue to trade in some form using our delivery service. The second option has been hugely costly, yet we saw it as our social responsibility to look after those who are stuck at home, as we knew this would benefit them hugely. Our deliveries have allowed people to carry on gardening, keeping them mentally and physically fit, whilst also giving them something productive to do. We also knew that, whereas we might survive by hiding under a blanket during lockdown, that our growers who have supplied us for years would not. So the decision was made to reorganise the business to be run purely from telephone orders with the few staff we had available.

On a busy spring day, we would normally expect over a thousand visitors to Castle Gardens alone, so there was no way that we could handle such a volume of calls. Nor did we have enough staff to process that number of orders or enough vans to deliver such volume. In fact the scaling up would have required three times the number of staff as we normally have and 30 vans, when we usually run with three!

Many colleagues in the industry tried what we were doing and gave up, some after the first morning. Others braved it out. Where we have colleagues who did carry on we know that we are at the top of league in terms of orders dispatched and we averaged some 350 transactions per day during April.

I’m sure those who struggled to get through were frustrated, but the number of emails, cards and letters we received thanking us for what we were doing was overwhelming.

At the same time we had an excess of plants that would have to be thrown away and so distributed these to schools, nursing homes, hospitals and charities, as well as some enterprising village pop-up shops.

In my role as Chairman of the Garden Centre Association, I have also been heavily involved in industry meetings, liaison with MPs, radio, television and newspaper interviews, Zoom, Skype and Teams video meetings and a host of other work that I wasn’t anticipating!

Like many other businesses in the past two months, we have worked with our bank for additional loans, we have had to work out the furlough scheme and the letters to staff amending contracts, and liaise with suppliers re-negotiating extended payments. We have reinvented the business once in the last two months and now we have to do it again. We won’t get everything right but it won’t be for the want of trying.