When BBC News runs a story on its website about the demand for sheds, you know something is going on in the market.

The story on February 2, ‘Wealthy home workers retreat to their sheds’ (https://www. bbc.co.uk/news/business-55845735) focused on the top end of the market, but did – and still does – reflect the wider picture. Sales of sheds have gone a bit bonkers.

Terry Waldron, managing director of online shed seller Waltons, told the BBC that his company had seen a 300% increase in demand for garden structures that could double as a home office. Meanwhile Charles Walton, founder of Kybotech, the parent company of the BillyOh brand, which is one of the UK’s largest shed manufacturers, commented that a shed allows people the luxury of being able to get away from the house – and perhaps the family – in times of lockdown.

It’s a story mirrored by other shed manufacturers in the UK. Power Sheds, for example, which launched just two years ago, has seen a big uptick in sales of its sheds, prompting it to move into much bigger premises and take on more staff. It also plans on launching a log cabins range in May to capitalise on the growing demand for garden offices.

Not all of the sheds being bought in the UK at the moment are destined to become writing dens or call centres, of course, and many will retain their primary function as a depository for all things garden related, but the driver for the increase in sales is the same – lockdown has focused minds on garden improvements.

Including sheds in Hutton’s portfolio was “a no brainer”, according to David Twigg, director at Severn Valley Woodworks, parent company to the garden products division.

“We had a record year for shed sales last year and I have no doubt that, capacity allowing, we will surpass that this year,” he said. “When you have a good product at a fair price it works.”

He added that one of the testaments to the quality of Hutton’s sheds is that some of the company’s best resellers are themselves shed manufacturers. “They will offer their customers a bespoke option that might have an extended lead time or they can take one of our sheds because they have them in stock,” said Mr Twigg.

Naturally it hasn’t all been plain sailing and manufacturers have had to adapt to the new world order.

“We saw the same changes that many companies did,” said Peter Jackson, managing director at Jacksons Fencing. “Office staff transitioned to working from home and remaining staff required to be in the office were spaced out across the building to keep a safe distance.

“We implemented strict hygiene practices and moved all meetings online. We haven’t had to halt production, but we have increased manufacturing space to ensure everyone is safely distanced.”

Mr Jackson added that the company was “extremely busy” in 2020. “With many confined to their homes, they turned their attention to improving their homes and gardens, using money that would have been spent on holidays and so on.”

Zest 4 Leisure, the garden products arm of the P&A Group, did halt production when the first national lockdown was announced last March but gradually re-opened the business via its home delivery offer.

“In normal circumstances, having our stockists closed for a large period of the season would have been catastrophic, but such was the demand, both online and with stockists, that sales far exceeded our expectations and budgets for the season were exceeded across the board,” said Simon Davidson, head of commercial development at Zest 4 Leisure.

“During this closed period we put procedures in place to ensure our staff remained safe and that shipments came in and out of the business in the safest way possible.”

In France, PiveteauBois stopped production for two weeks last spring but demand for its landscaping and garden products “rocketed” as people confined to homes started to splash the cash on their gardens.

“This created huge tension in the market, so we had to work double and treble shifts to meet the demand,” said Elisabeth Piveteau- Boley, director UK & Ireland. “There has been a 20% rise in demand across all garden and landscaping products – and even higher for some products.”

The Glee exhibition at the NEC was a casualty of Covid last year – to the regret of some, but not all.

Hutton has been a stalwart of the show for many years, taking a large stand and picking up good orders but its three week shutdown in the spring gave it the opportunity to rethink its business strategy and focus more on regional than on national sales – although it will continue to sell its products through timber merchants nationally.

“We have timber merchant customers all over the UK and they can still buy Hutton products but these are delivered as part of a full artic load of machined and pressure treated timber,” said Mr Twigg. “Our strategy allows us to avoid expensive multi-drop deliveries of small orders where a lorry can be gone for two days or more, so effectively doubling the transport cost.”

Hutton also supplies “one or two” significant internet sellers but only ones that sell from their own stock.

“We won’t drop ship for them and feel it’s extremely important that we maintain a level playing field for customers who invest their money in stock.”

As a result of the refocus, Glee has become less relevant for them and while the show is scheduled to take place from September 14-16 this year, Hutton won’t be there.

An advocate of keeping it simple, Mr Twigg said Hutton now keeps in touch with its customers and prospects via personalised emails, advising them of new products, lead times and so on.

“That in itself has resulted in a deepening of the bond between the customers and the company. In these challenging and uncertain times customers need information and it is our responsibility to provide them with it”.

Zest 4 Leisure was disappointed that Glee didn’t take place but said that Virtual Glee 2020 was “a huge success” for the company and that it has every intention of attending the next physical event.

“We enjoyed meeting new and existing customers on the virtual platform away from worries of the pandemic,” said Mr Davidson.

“To make the most of the virtual trade show opportunity, we also created a collection of bespoke videos filmed on location in ‘The Zest Garden’ as we could not see customers in person,” he continued. “They showcased our range and our new products in a way that imagery alone does not. All filming happened outside under strict socially distanced measures. This proved to be very successful as we presented the products ourselves.

“With regard to new products; we were thrilled to have come away from the event with four product awards including; Best New Product for the three-tier stackable raised bed – also category winner in Garden Growing Containers. The easy build Burghley arbour won in Garden Leisure & Entertaining category and Zest’s cherry blossom Japanese-style arch was a joint winner in the Garden Landscaping category. This was a huge boost for us and has led to record volumes of orders being placed for the 2021 season.

“These products along with the other 2021 new collection have now been launched to the trade and we’re pleased to see that they have been well received.

“We really enjoyed speaking with customers on the virtual platform but nothing beats meeting people face-to-face so we’re really looking forward to this year’s Glee event and showcasing our range for 2022. We have booked a larger stand and are already designing for the exhibition event.”

As reported in our fencing market report (TTJ January/February), anyone manufacturing fencing products has had a bonanza year.

Forest Garden, for example, saw fencing demand up 30% in the second half of 2020 compared to 2019. After the first lockdown it had to turn down new fencing business in order to focus on supplying existing customers and it introduced additional shifts at the beginning of this year.

Jacksons Fencing said that all its garden fence panels were popular and it had seen an increase in sales of acoustic barriers, not just for large developments but for single residential properties as well.

“The pandemic really has highlighted the importance of health and well-being and acoustic fencing works extremely well to reduce harmful noise around our homes and gardens,” said Mr Jackson. “People have noticed the impact of noise a lot more as they have been spending more time at home.”

And elevated fencing demand is not exclusive to the UK. PiveteauBois can’t supply fence panels to the UK at the moment because it can “hardly meet the demand in France”.

Most of the company’s client base in France is professional builders, carpenters and landscapers but it too has found that the redirecting of holiday funds into renovation and remodelling projects has led to huge demand for fence panels, sleepers, decking products – and swimming pools. “Our sales of timber swimming pools have doubled compared to last year,” said Ms Piveteau-Boley. “People know they will be spending time at home so they are investing in their well-being. Another trend in France is to rent very well equipped and quality houses (airbnbn etc) and this has stimulated private individuals into investing into a pool so they can rent their property. Climate change and rising summer temperatures have also contributed. People tend to go for small swimming pool models (3m x 6m) but well equipped with rolling cover, heat pump and so on.

“Our clients love our smooth rounded face decking boards for better water drainage and slip resistance,” she added. “Douglas fir is very popular for decking, especially our grey pressure treated finish (Catalogne and Lavezzi).”

Sales show no sign of abating either. “Our order book for the trade for the coming season is already full.”

Decking has put in another stellar performance at Hutton’s parent, Severn Valley Woodworks where sales were up a whopping 58% year-on-year in 2020, which itself was a record year for the company.

“And we haven’t taken on any new customers,” said Mr Twigg. “We could have done – we had vast swathes of enquiries and that came down to the fact that we had [raw] material when others didn’t. When some of the nationals cancelled their supply contracts in the first lockdown because they weren’t sure what was happening, we kept it coming in. It put us in a very good position when we did return to production. “Cladding is another product where we are up 42% year-on-year,” he added. “Our overall volumes of machined timber were up 37%. Given there was a three-week shutdown, some of the numbers are staggering.”

He added that at the beginning of February forward orders for profiled and pressure treated softwood from customers were around four-and-a-half times the usual level.

Hutton’s sales have been strong across the board, with “the usual seasonal suspects”.

“In the summer the market went picnic table mad and then it was seating,” said Mr Twigg. Arbours and other decorative garden products have also done well.

Zest 4 Leisure’s outdoor dining sets were “extremely popular”, said Simon Davidson, and the company saw a considerable increase in demand for its ‘grow your own’ range.

“With the increase in home schooling, several of our customers took their lessons outside and taught children the importance of home-grown produce,” he said.

“Sales of our deep root planters, veg beds and herb planters were incredible and beyond anything we have previously experienced,” he added.

Zest 4 Leisure survived tight material supply by having a generous stock holding of products across the range and saw “huge increases in sales”. Arbours and swing seats sold “exceptionally well” as did the company’s range of larger structures, such as gazebos, pavilions and shelters.

New this year is its Easy Build range, the design of which is based on the principle of fewer components that are more easily put together. The collection includes the new Charlotte dining set and seating range, the Burghley and Tenby arbours and the three-tier stackable raised beds.

Other manufacturers, such as Jacksons Fencing have been content to satisfy demand with their existing ranges.

“We released two new panels and a fence topper panel at the start of 2020,” said Mr Jackson. “The market seems content with the designs that are currently in play. This could be down to the lack of show gardens in 2020, such as the Chelsea Flower Show.”

Garden product manufacturers were optimistic about business this year even before Boris Johnson’s announcement on February 22 of the easing of restrictions over the next few months.

“As the world begins to open up again – pubs, restaurants, leisure facilities and the holiday market – we imagine it will begin to quieten down, but spring and summer are always busy for us,” said Mr Jackson.

“It’s encouraging to see people turning to British manufacturers and investing in high quality products that will last longer than standard garden fencing and I hope people continue to support British manufacturers now and into the future.”

“All the indications are that this season is likely to be another exceptional one, as demand throughout the quieter autumn/ winter months has been far higher than anything we have experienced before,” said Mr Davidson at Zest 4 Leisure.

“And both the size of orders from customers and the number of new enquiries we continue to receive indicate a huge amount of confidence in the sector.”