Aussies’ garden love continues post-COVID

Furniture designs created with mixed material are on-trend, delivering a high-end look in outdoor living areas.

While the garden and outdoor living space was yet another hardware segment that experienced a surge in sales during the pandemic, it seems there is no sign of the boom slowing down with Australians’ love for their gardens expected to continue well into the upcoming spring season.

IHG’s (Independent Hardware Group’s) Finish and Exterior Business Manager, Kate Baker, alongside Outdoor Living and Indoor Furnishings Category Manager, Emma Lewis, recently enlightened AHJ on current trends within the garden and outdoor living sector, as well as IHG’s strategy when tackling supply challenges.

“Just some of the key growth areas within this space include vegetable seeds, with sales in composting also increasing in-line with this trend. Children’s play equipment and cubby houses have also become exceptionally popular. Although sales are not at the height that they were during COVID lockdowns, garden sales are still significantly higher than 2019 levels. It is evident that people have maintained their interest in gardening since the first wave of the pandemic,” Kate said.

Strong sales are also evident within the outdoor furniture space, according to Emma, as customers attempt to recreate the tropical oasis they once enjoyed during overseas holidays.

“Because Australians are not yet able to go on their annual sunshine holiday overseas, they are recreating a tropical oasis at home. Last season there was so much demand for quality outdoor furniture that we saw widespread stock shortages across most retailers. The boom is expected to continue this season with home owners opting for a seamless indoor/outdoor look,” she said.

“Going back 20 years ago, outdoor furniture usually consisted of a forest green cast-iron garden setting that your grandparents used to have, but now the settings are so stylish you are not often sure if they are for the indoor or outdoor area. This trend has been going on for a while but it is just growing more now people are unable to travel.”

“Mixed materials such as timber and wicker or aluminum are the key trends again for this season,” Emma said.

When it comes to customer preferences, IHG’s outdoor furniture program caters to all budgets however a growing proportion of customers are opting for the higher-end designs. According to Emma, in recent years customers have shown less restraint on budgets and are prepared to spend a couple of thousand dollars on a setting plus accessories such as cushions, outdoor rugs and a fire pit.

“Each season we update our designs in line with the current style trends, such as the Boho look, and ensure there is an assortment of products that meets the brief of what our customers are seeking. The range not only captures these design trends but helps people invest in their home surrounds,” Emma said.

“Fire pits were one of the most Googled searched terms in winter 2020 and sales remain high into this season. Part of what is driving this growth is people are generally tired of spending time indoors, particularly if they do not have a large home,” she said.

The Bohemian outdoor look is becoming a significant trend in the outdoor space.

Barbequing has also experienced phenomenal growth recently, especially in Melbourne where consumers could not go to restaurants during the extensive COVID lockdowns. Eating out is part of Melbourne’s culture, so consumers chose to make gourmet meals at home instead, according to Emma.

“Barbecue sales have doubled over the last 12 months, with the low and slow cookers and creative barbecuing becoming particularly popular. So much so, there has been a world-wide shortage of barbeque pellets.”

“When it comes to accessories, new trends within the home’s interior are transferring outdoors as well, with the Bohemian, chunky look becoming incredibly popular, alongside earthy tones,” Emma said.

Privacy has also become a priority when creating these outdoor spaces, with the use of outdoor screens and semi-permanent gazebos becoming particularly popular.

“The aluminum semi-permanent gazebos can be erected in a court-yard providing all year-round protection and has become quite popular because they allow privacy and protection as well. Their roofs are louvered as well, so users can choose if they want sun or shade,” Emma said.

IHG’s semi-permanent gazebos are proving to be extremely popular among customers, with the cleverly designed louvered roof giving users the option to sit in the sun or shade.

There is plenty of innovation in the outdoor decking space currently, with innovative products such as Intergrain’s new Universal Oil, set to excite this segment throughout spring, according to Kate.

“The Universal Oil is referred to as an ‘unlocked system’. This is because normally if you paint a deck with oil-based products, users are then committed to always use an oil-based product. Intergrain’s new Universal Oil can now be applied to a deck that had previously been an oil-based deck – even though it is a water-based product – and is set it much easier for users to re-coat their decks,” Kate said.

While there has been no shortage of excitement within the garden and outdoor living space over the past 18 months, it seems continued supply issues have presented a fair share of challenges. Kate said these issues have now become less about being unable to source stock, and more about having to work with extended lead times.

“Taking the learnings from last year, we have worked really hard with all of our suppliers – locally and overseas – and months ahead of schedule to ensure we have stock ready to go for the season ahead. We source more Australian product now, which in some cases has helped in our capacity to meet supply as well as boosting the appeal of our furniture program to consumers,” Kate said.

The availability of the range through Click ‘N Collect channels, sold online and available to collect from over 600 Mitre 10, Home Hardware, True Value or Thrifty-Link stores nationally, is another value-add that IHG offers for consumers, added Emma. 

“Through our free-into-store freight arrangements we have with all of our stores, consumers are able to shop the range online without the worry of expensive freight fees that some other retailers charge. In addition our smaller stores, who do not necessarily have the footprint to showcase the full range in-store, leverage the online channel to give extra choice for their local customers and have the product delivered to store for collection.”

“As we do each season, we will continue to analyze areas where there has been a surge in certain products and make sure we are well stocked and able to adapt to consumer behavior,” Emma said.

IHG is expecting another bumper sales season for all outdoor and garden categories, well ahead of pre-COVID levels, according to Kate.

“Whether it is outdoor furniture, garden décor, plants or barbeques – there is an insatiable demand for home projects and products that help ‘spruce up’ your outdoor living spaces. Our members are passionate, they invest in these categories, and they are well educated so they can assist their customers when they come looking for advice and solutions.”

“We have over 400 different suppliers for the garden category alone, who enable all of the stores to have specific products that are suitable for their geographical area. This is one of the beauties of the independent model – enabling every store to do a very good job of catering for their immediate and local market,” Kate said.

Ambient garden centre entices McLaren Vale Mitre 10’s customers.

The garden team utilise their many years of experience to ensure that the garden centre continues to look quirky and exciting.

With a green life department that has grown 60 per cent in just three years, McLaren Vale Mitre 10 still has big plans to grow its popular garden department even further.

Part owner of the South Australian store, Fiona Loveday said the department has become so popular it is now a ‘must-see’ destination, for those visiting the McLaren Vale wineries and surrounds.

If the live canary and budgie sounds throughout the garden is not enough to fill the senses while checking out the centre, then the 12 running fountains and stunning merbau decking that has been used to create outstanding shelving for all of the healthy plants certainly will. The store’s new popular giftware and homewares department now leads into the garden centre, so there is plenty for locals and tourists to discover when visiting the store.

Fiona said she believes the store’s success lies in having the foresight to continually grow and evolve the business, as well as trying out new products.

“The garden centre continually draws new customers primarily through word-of-mouth, as the store does not use a lot of social media, but word is travelling far and wide that the centre is a ‘must-see’ in the area,” Fiona said.

“We have made sure the garden centre is not just a tack on centre to the hardware store. It is a destination as a garden centre and there is a big variety of plants to choose from. Even though we do not really cater to landscapers or those looking for bulk products, we can always source these products if required,” she said.

While presentation is a high priority in the garden centre, high quality products go hand-in-hand in maintaining high standards throughout the garden space.

“If we would not pay full price for a product, then we reduce that product. In saying this, we do maintain the high quality of our plants and we do not need to throw much out. It is about having the right staff who know how to look after the plants and choose the right plants for our area,” she said.

“While we do occasionally have a gamble with larger quantities of a new product that might be at a good price, the majority of the time I believe having a large variety of plants is important, but also having plants that thrive in the local area because we do not believe in selling plants that will fail.”

“Even though we do have customers come from areas where the climate is a little bit different, we are not going to sell plants that will not do well once the customer takes it home. In our garden section, if a plant is indoor and under-cover it means that it needs to be indoor and under-cover and we constantly remind our customers of this,” Fiona said.

It seems that indoor plants and pots have made a big comeback in recent months with the store recently dedicating a new aisle solely to indoor pots and hanging baskets to cater to this trend.

“We sell lots of outdoor pots but we have now included a new aisle in-store, near the irrigation area, that is dedicated to indoor pots, hanging baskets, cover pots and tri-pod pots. The indoor trends have evolved because customers are trying to to create a happier and healthier indoor space by placing indoor plants throughout the home, particularly during COVID lockdowns. Some of our customers are completely obsessed with their indoor plant collection.”

“Indoors is not just about having an indoor plant inside because some need low light, lots of light, less water or more water. It is easy to kill an indoor plant if you do not have it in the right room but our customers are always willing to engage with our staff and discuss what they need to do to see their plants thrive,” she said.

The store’s natives, flowering perennials and hedging area also performed well during lockdowns, according to Fiona, with customers wanting to put in new garden areas or just maintain what they have. These trends have continued as customers seek to maintain their need for gardening, she says.

“Vegetable seedlings are also currently very popular with people wanting to grow their own fresh produce, and flowers go along with this. This time of the year sees people also planting seed potatoes and garlic. Everyone is going with the season to get fresh produce in.”

“We have many customers who are very organically minded and will only buy the organic fertilizer et cetera because they want to know what their produce is grown in. We also have some of the wineries come to us to grow their own herbs and veggie patches along with schools, with a lot of them doing kitchen/garden projects, as well as the local childcare who obviously have to educate the younger children on what they can and cannot eat,” Fiona said.

While Fiona said it is important for staff to remain well-educated on products, so they can in-turn educate customers, she has also made sure the garden centre is well set up so experienced customers can serve themselves.

McLaren Vale Mitre 10 staff remind their customers about the importance on placing plants in areas where they are most likely to thrive.

“For those customers who have a good idea about gardening, we have set up the area so people can easily get what they need without having to ask staff. We have done this by implementing easy access to trolleys and good signage. These are the customers who easily buy what they need because they trust that the plants are healthy and they can access help from our staff if required.”

Whilst the store does not carry a guarantee on its plants, all plants are very healthy upon the sale. The store also sources plants locally so plants can be grown successfully at home by local customers.

“If we cannot source a plant locally, we go to Victoria which has a similar climate. If we cannot source a citrus plant from Victoria, we do not go and source the same plant from Northern New South Wales. If it has not grown in a climate that is anything like ours, they do not look as good, they are much more expensive and people would rather wait. When you tell customers that a product is worth the wait because of what it is grafted onto, they are happy to wait up to six months for the right product.”

“Our garden staff will also ask where customers are putting their plants making sure they are under cover if they need to be or have plenty of sun. They will also ask where the plant is going and what the soil is like. It is troubleshooting before you even sell,” she said.

While Fiona agrees there have been some supply issues this year, supply is currently not as challenging because nurseries have had a chance to build stock up over the last six months.

“People still cannot travel so I guess those who are normally travelling are maybe improving their house and their garden even today. While supply is picking up there are still certain plants we just cannot source but this has always been the case,” she said.

“Our garden team know how to make an area look exciting and we also know how to look after the plants properly. Mandy, Liz, Anthony and Fiona complete the garden team. Their many years of experience and study make McLaren Vale Mitre 10 Garden Centre what it is today and a space they are all very proud of. We combine this expertise with Mark’s special love for giftware and we also have quirky products, like hanging monkeys, everywhere.”

The green life department now flows through to a popular giftware section which is also doing extremely well in-store. Looking to the next six months, plans are already in place for the garden centre to be expanded even further into an area beside the store’s trade centre.

“We have excavated and paved this new area so we could implement a new advanced tree area. We also installed several large fountains in this area as well as all of our pots as another add on to the store. There are no businesses in the area that currently stock advanced tress so we are looking forward to giving this a go in the months ahead,” Fiona said.

Nursery masterminds see Diamond Valley blossom

The Diamond Valley Mitre 10 Garden Centre team inspires customers through the love and passion they have for their own gardens.

Another outstanding garden centre is located at the very popular Diamond Valley Mitre 10, located about 30 kilometres north of Melbourne, in the suburb of Diamond Creek.

Kathy Marshall has worked at the garden centre for over 20 years, alongside colleague Robert Urban, who are the masterminds of the nursery and garden centre and work closely together to create stunning innovations that keep the customers coming back.

There is no limit to what you can do once you use your imagination, according to Kathy.

“I just make sure we are constantly switching things around so the garden centre does not become boring or dated. Some of our more recent changes include picking up a couple of new local suppliers who have been instrumental in helping me source more Australian Made products for the garden centre. This is perfect timing when considering how hard it has been to source some imported products post-COVID.”

“A lot of our customers prefer locally made products now which is why we have introduced new garden sculptures that are sourced from New South Wales and Daylesford. Products we used to source from China are no longer available because a lot of the factories closed down during COVID. Even supply from Japan has been disrupted because shipping containers have been stalled in the queue to come in. We were running out of a lot of products. We simply cannot rely on other countries for supply anymore,” she said.

Though Kathy admits locally made products are priced slightly higher, consumers are happy to pay a touch more for products certified under the Australian Made logo because the certification easily communicates to customers that the product is made locally.

“This is also the case when it comes to products that we use such as Goodman seeds, who are based in Bairnsdale. Customers love this product because they know it is a high-quality seed grown in Gippsland, Victoria.”

“Seeds became very popular during lockdowns because a lot of our customers reassessed their back yard and reignited the growing of home-grown food. It was crazy how quickly seeds were selling in-store during this time. When there was a shortage of seeds, a lot of the bigger suppliers said they were only going to deal with the customers they had dealt with for years. We had a continual supply of seeds because the suppliers showed their loyalty to us during this time,” she said.

Supply is improving, although there are still several products that will take several months to come through, according to Kathy.

“While we have a good supply of bagged goods because they are all Australian, it is things like the tomato cages that are only just starting to come back in that have been hard to source. It was worse a couple of months ago but it is getting better,” she said.

“We are also very lucky that the staff who work in garden are either extremely qualified or have a huge passion for their gardens. This passion is passed onto our customers and is also why so many customers come from such a long way away to visit our store.”

“We just need to keep this up and also genuinely ensure that our customers know how important they are to us. To continue to inspire them through the love and passion that we have for our gardens. People have to go past a lot of nurseries to come here but they keep coming back to us. One passionate customer drives over an hour to source product from the Diamond Valley Mitre 10 Garden Centre because he trusts the plants and the advice that the staff deliver,” Kathy said.

When it comes to implementing high quality presentation in-store, Kathy said management have allowed her to re-create and develop her own displays, “as long as I do not put anything stupid in-store like an aeroplane.”

“The garden centre must have a welcome feel about it or customers simply will not come here. It has to be inviting so they are comfortable enough to have a walk around and see what they can find. I think by implementing the artwork and ornaments into our displays, ensures the garden centre is as welcoming as possible,” she said.

Just some of the products on-trend at the moment include indoor plants, and Kathy believes she does not expect this trend to slow down anytime soon.

“People like to bring the outside in and everyone knows how healthy it is to bring your greenery inside. Then of course you have all the plant stands that go alongside the indoor plants and the beautiful pots that go with it,” she said.

“There are also a lot of innovative products coming on-trend that look like a living pergola or a green wall so there is not a lot of distinction between inside and outside. People love to build their gardens right up to their back door. We are also seeing suppliers make a tall tree look like a pergola in itself, alongside garden furniture that looks like something you would have inside rather than the traditional old chair and table out the back.”

“People are also implementing pizza ovens, meat smokers and fire pits in their outdoor areas because they really want to spend as much time outside as possible. Everyone wants to make their outdoor areas a snug place in the backyard to spend time in and relax,” Kathy said.

Cottage gardens created using native plants are also starting to make a comeback, according to Kathy, who said they tend to grow really well locally, and the store makes sure it stocks a comprehensive range.

“People also want to go and pick a bunch of flowers from their garden and bring it inside. While the cottage plants, like lavender and salvias are beautiful, you can easily mix these in with the natives to make a stunning garden.”

“We often have to spend some time offering our ideas to our customers because most of the time they will have a design in mind, but they just do not know what to plant. We tell them to bring photos to us of what they have in mind and then we show them a few different things from there. Most of the time they do not have an idea of the design they want, so we help with this as well,” she said.

Diamond Valley Mitre 10’s garden staff would often visit customer’s homes – pre-COVID – to offer ideas on the type of garden they wish to create.

“We also assist local schools in re-creating their garden beds to brighten up their gardens– it really is a great community feel out here now. There are also a lot of school programs out at the moment which is seeing schools set up vegetable gardens and compete against other schools on this. Once the kids start doing this, the parents get involved too which is great.”

When discussing sales post-COVID, while Kathy believes that sales are slightly quieter now that the height of the pandemic has passed. People have become use to what they need to do during lockdowns and those who have are on JobKeeper have had to be careful with their dollars as well.

“When I look at my sales compared with last financial year to this financial year, currently we are hitting the same targets. However, I believe this spring will be different to last spring. Everyone is realizing that you do not have to rush out and do everything you want to do to your home and garden. Due to our customers doing a lot of gardening in last year’s lockdown, which was very good for the nursery industry, they now have all their garden beds and pots potted and they really want to maintain these for now,” she said.

“Seedlings and plants continue to sell very well because customers have discovered the joy of growing their own food but they now need the seeds and soil that go along with maintaining their new projects. They have invested all this money into it so they will keep it going, especially if it is a family project that has been enjoyed by all as well,” she said.

Looking ahead to the upcoming season, Kathy says she will continue to source more locally made products, including garden sculptures to implement in-store. The store will also continue to supply plants for the TV series ‘The Block’, with Kathy personally sourcing plants for the front and rear gardens, as well as assisting with designs should the contestants run out of money.

“We are always trying to look at new things to implement in store. We will be doing our spring planning soon, and doing our research with suppliers and work out some exciting new things that we can bring in to keep the excitement going in the upcoming gardening season,” she said.