Let’s get real right from the start here. GardenSite LLP is a web-driven business that started life and still remains as a physical garden centre as well.

It is a small, family-orientated business based in premises that date back to the end of the 19th Century, to the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1990s. We are not talking acres of modern computer-controlled glasshouses but a patchwork of smaller buildings that have sprouted up over the decades. Some are brick, others are block and metal construction and some are simply wood and glass. And the whole site is built on a fairly steep hill. Hence why we were named "The garden centre on the hill" in a local newspaper when we first opened.

So although we are a working garden centre, and that is where this blog will focus, the issues we have to deal with in running a small business in the UK in 2022 are the same as very many other businesses in any other sector. Hopefully, something that we have learned will help you!

The Impact Caused by The Cost of Living Crisis

I don’t need to spell out the issues we are facing but energy prices, fuel costs and a resistance for consumers to spend are now established factors in running a business in 2022, for most of us. Keeping wages high to retain good staff with product knowledge has become paramount as the cost of replacing experienced staff would be daunting. With all costs rising and sales falling everyone knows that the margin for profit is very quickly squeezed. If you are a successful business person or garden centre operator you don’t need me to tell you how to sell or increase revenue, but I can tell you how we are taking a deep dive into cutting costs.

Increased Efficiency in our Aquatics Dept Will Pay Dividends

We sell coldwater, tropical, and marine fish and plants and if you do too you will know how many heaters you have to run to keep the fish happy in the optimal temperature water that they need. It is, therefore, not a surprise that some of our customers are telling us that they are relinquishing their set-ups and turning off their heaters and pumps and packing away their tanks.

For some hobbyists, the hike in their electricity charges means they have to choose between heating their fish and heating their home.

What are Temperate Fish and Why Should You Promote Them?

I am not an expert on keeping fish, that is my brother Andrew’s forte and the staff and management that run our aquatics superstore. And it was a casual chat with Debbie (our fish house manager) a few weeks ago that taught me about temperate fish. They look like tropical fish, they behave like tropical fish but they do not need the higher water temperatures that tropical fish need. In fact, they are quite happy in ambient, or room temperature water, so you can turn that expensive water heater OFF!

A small aquarium pump that uses a lot less electricity than a heater is all that is needed to create what appears to be a tropical fish tank, but without the heater. At this point, I must say you need to consult further online or through a trained aquarist as to which fish are classified as temperate and how to slowly reduce the water temperature so there is no stress, but for the aquatics retailer, you can now offer your customers a much cheaper and greener equivalent to keeping tropical or marine fish at home. 

This is all about selling a product that the customer wants (or needs?) rather than trying to sell the right product at the wrong time. Turning a negative into a positive and saving your, and your customers, valuable electricity costs.

A temperate fish tank on display within our aquatics superstore.
A temperate fish tank on display within our aquatics superstore.

What Is an Eco Pond Pump and Why Should You Promote Them?

 Of course it’s very simple, it is just a pond pump that is far more energy-efficient than traditional pond pumps. But maybe you didn’t know they existed? They are certainly the type of pond pump any aquatics dept. should be offering their customers, as it is the type of product that savvy customers will be looking to buy.

I’m no expert so I consulted our website, GardenSite, and quickly found this product as an example:

The Oase Aquamax Eco 6000 pond pump, which has the following description about its energy-efficient and eco friendly design:

  • Huge savings on running costs can be made with the Eco range of energy-efficient water pumps from Oase
  • Innovative electrical control to optimise energy usage, with savings up to 40%
  • Even more impressive is the newly developed. Seasonal Flow Control (SFC – for Aquamax ECO 12000/16000) which can save an additional 20%
  • Further innovative features include a flow-optimised impeller that guarantees maximum hydraulic pump performance and improved displacement of coarse debris
  • Outstanding efficiency clearly does not have an adverse effect on performance, so the Aquamax pump is fabulous value for money

I am sure that there are many other manufacturers, other than OASE that sell eco pond pumps and maybe you should be selling them too as they're greener for both the customer and the environment in general.

Solar Pumps Need to be Displayed and Need Explaining

With this in mind, Andrew has set up a short run of solar pond pumps next to each other just outside our aquatics department, so our customers can clearly see what the difference in performance is between them, and which ones have a rechargeable battery pack included so they can still run when the sun is hiding.

Not many customers really comprehend the ‘litres per hour’ details that are displayed on the product's box, but everyone can see how high the water is pumped and how fast it is pumped. Follow this idea and teach your staff and your customers who will buy solar pumps from you and not the competition. Obviously, this is also a very green renewable energy option.

Increased Efficiency in our Garden Centre Will Drive Down Costs

We all know about how to improve lighting efficiency by changing to LED bulbs but Simon (a GardenSite partner) has recently discovered an LED tube that will fit most of our existing fluorescent tube lighting. Okay, LED tubes are more expensive to buy initially but you do not have to replace the whole fitment to get the benefit of reduced energy costs straight away. 

We have been slowly reducing the number of fluorescent fittings in favour of LED fittings but it isn’t a cheap initial outlay, once we can get hold of our electrician who seems to be in constant demand so this is a great quick midway alternative that you can implement today.

We calculated by NOT turning our garden centre lighting on one hour before we needed to at 9.00am we could save over one thousand pounds a year. If we multiply that saving over 3 or 4 departments you are looking at nearly £5k savings per annum. Turning off every other light, particularly in the summer months, makes a massive cost-saving and cuts down on the heat output that gets the staff reaching for the electric fans quicker than you can say ‘summer sun’.

Saving Water on Our Plant Beds also Saves Us Time

This is a slightly longer term action that some of the others I have outlined already but is also one of the very best ways of becoming more efficient if you currently use the overhead water sprinklers/jets to irrigate your hardy nursery stock. Again we have to thank Simon for taking us down this route.

Replace them with the newer ‘flood bed’ type of wooden plant bed and plastic insert tray. We have been doing this for the last couple of years and the benefits are huge. I have to say we have some guys who are pretty practised at being able to plumb these beds into our pump-driven irrigation system and also at putting in valve-controlled drain pipes to take away the excess water when no longer required.

The old-style overhead water system has served us very well for decades but it wastes so much water that is flung everywhere and not just on our valuable nursery stock. That amount of water also causes damage to any nearby buildings as well as eroding nearby paths and drives over the years. With the flood beds, you simply put as much water as you want into each bed, and there it stays until it evaporates or you open the drains and run it off. Except we don’t do that as we have the option of running off the aged water into a watering can where we can use it on larger plants that may not be on the watering system, or for our houseplants inside.

A watering can catching any leftover water after watering our plant table.
A watering can catching any leftover water after watering our plant table.

How to Keep Your Outdoor Plants Looking Fresh When the Thermometer Reaches 30 Degrees?

Easy. Just flood the bed in two minutes to a depth of a couple of centimetres and leave your hardy nursery stock to soak up that water. In fact, you can leave them standing in a little water for a day or two when it really gets scorching but plants also need to breathe so only do this on exceptional days. It is, of course, easy to empty the beds in seconds anyway. But you really don’t have to worry about your stock burning up in the summer sun anymore. And fresh healthy plants are not just what you want but what your customer also demands.

And some plants, like Astilbes and Hostas just love to be damp and they will probably drink up the water before you need to drain it out. This method doesn’t waste anywhere near as much water either, cutting down on another cost and again using the greener option.

A table of Dianthus Pink Kisses plants on display.
A table of Dianthus Pink Kisses plants on display.

How Do We Best Heat Our Restaurant When Temperatures Drop?

Here at GardenSite our restaurant, The Garden Room is on the ground floor of a 1930’s old pub. Our offices are on the first floor. The building is beautiful with tall ceilings and oak window frames. But it is draughty as hell and the gas-fired central heating really struggles when the weather gets mean. 

I contacted our local gas heating engineer David Hancox from Hancox Heating to see what he could recommend. David is an expert in his field and soon discovered that the existing bolier wasn’t efficient enough but could be upgraded with an additional external pump, better and wider, more direct piping and more efficient twin radiators. 

Putting the system onto two zones also means that we can run them separately and, more importantly, only run the ground floor heating over the weekend when the offices are not in use on Saturdays and Sundays. Removing the old wooden decorative radiator covers will also help as they can be replaced by a much more efficient metal alternative that is both stylish and economical. Temperatures can be set by an App so you can react quickly if there is a sudden temperature change overnight, either way.

As the gas central heating was inefficient the staff in the offices used portable electric heaters to supplement the heat when the mercury dropped as it’s not fair to expect anyone to sit at a desk when it's cold. We have two winters left on a 4 year fixed gas deal so a more efficient system should negate the need for the very expensive electric heaters which will, ultimately, reduce our heating costs overall.

How Else Can You Improve Profitability at Your Business for a Minimal Outlet?

Well, this is a crazy example, but true. Earlier this year I was left with 36 pairs of once-used pink flip-flops that could have sat in the back of an old storeroom for years but my wife Kay had other ideas. Sell them online, she suggested. And we did. Whether it be eBay or Amazon or any other online seller you will have staff who can get the craziest of items uploaded and sold, normally in just a few days, turning old stock back into cash and freeing up storage space. If we can sell pink flip-flops, used once, you can sell whatever you have hidden away.

Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read my ‘cost of living crisis’ blog. I hope it sparks another idea for someone else and helps your business help your customers which in turn I hope will help your sanity.