The clocks going forward is usually the sign for the garden products sector to move up a gear.

Increased daylight hours and hopefully warmer temperatures on the way should get consumers in the mood to think about investment in their outdoor space.

At least this is what timber garden product manufacturers will be hoping for following a 2005 characterised by a slowdown in market growth.

Last year presented some challenges to the industry, with Dandf being the major casualty due to cash flow problems. Forest Garden plc picked up the assets including the Dandf name, tooling, stock and design rights for garden buildings. And Forest Garden and Richard Burbidge implemented redundancies and financial restructuring to counteract a dip in sales.

Reasons for the slowdown could include a number of factors, such as the general election, a slowing housing market and retail sector gloom. However, there is still optimism that 2006 will see a pick-up in business.

M&M Timber managing director Nigel Poyner said he was looking forward to the season. The company, which diversified into garden products in 2004, now has 73 garden centre accounts. Its garden products business already makes up 35% of the company’s turnover. This year it has high hopes for its Cottage Rose Walk product, which consumers can use to grow roses and wysteria on.

Mr Poyner, who expects M&M to grow by a further 20% this year, pointed to investment in the garden centre industry as a sign of confidence among retailers.

Market entry

Finnforest, which last year fanfared its entry into the garden market, is also upbeat about its new offering – GARDENinspirations, a collection of themed gardens covering contemporary, traditional and country cottage styles.

Finnforest marketing manager Warren Dudding said: “We are looking towards the more designer side of things and added value. We want to present the garden as a room in the house and in doing so try to give value to quite a conservative market place.

“If you have a contemporary-designed house there aren’t many contemporary garden products in the market place. There are heaters, garden furniture and water features, but if you are looking for fence panels and arbours there’s limited representation of that.”

Mr Dudding said Finnforest was receiving good interest from retailers, including supermarkets, for the range.

He thought if the City of London had another good year, the property market gathered Pace and interest rates stayed low, then 2006 should be a “reasonable” year, with 2007 set to be “a positive one”.

Peter Smith (Garden Furniture) Ltd, which makes a range of rustic garden furniture and bird tables, is looking towards a doubling of turnover this year, largely due to investment in new CNC manufacturing technology.

The machinery means the Bradford-based company can optimise seasonal peaks and troughs and eliminate high season lead times of six weeks or more. It has also introduced a jointing system based on stronger dowels.

The result is a transformation from traditional methods of production to a flatpack manufacturing culture, sidestepping the logistical headaches of seasonal production, furniture assembly and warehousing.

Nick Smith, managing director of Peter Smith, said: “It’s always been about making and assembling, piece by piece, and then warehousing. But now we are moving towards a much slicker, components-based business.”

He said the business, which traditionally covered north of Leicester, is experiencing strong sales into Ireland and the Channel Islands and now plans to take on southern England.

Meanwhile, The Deck Supply Co launched an online store last year called Cedar Outdoors, designed to capitalise on demand for western red cedar in gardens. Products added to the company’s range include trellis, fencing, gazebos, garden buildings and even roof shingles and cladding.

Deck Supply’s managing director Nick Taylor said: “A lot of people have cedar-clad hot tubs. They also want a cedar gazebo to match. People just like the material.”

Mr Taylor felt consumers had been cautious last year but thought 2006 looked optimistic judging by business so far.

Transforming sheds

The garden buildings market has seen a big rise in popularity, with the shed now morphing into a host of new uses, including homes offices, gyms and even saunas.

Walton Garden Buildings chief executive Roy Wakeman described the sector as very dynamic and consumer-led. He also reported a rise in the amount of business being done over the internet. “People buy white and brown goods online, so why not garden products?”

Meanwhile, organisers of the Glee show say that demand for stand space at this year’s event is “exceptionally strong”, with 70% of space in the landscaping halls booked. Early re-bookers include Forest Garden, Finnforest and Grange Fencing.

“Several exhibitors have significantly increased the size of their stand,” said Matthew Mein, Glee landscaping sales manager. “This is an extremely healthy response, especially in view of the recent tough trading seasons, but an indication that timber and landscaping firms see Glee as the must-attend event of the year.”

New launches at Glee 2005 included Grange Fencing’s Garden Reflections range, which uses mirrors to add depth and perspective to a garden.

On the decking front, the market was worth £124m in 2005, according to the Timber Decking Association (TDA), with TDA members recording an average growth of around 3%. Growth in 2004 was about 8%.

Registered decking contractors reportedly had a good year and many manufacturers won new stockists.

TDA general manager Steve Young said: “The good news for our members is that, despite a flat year, margins and profitability seem to have been maintained.”

Catriona Nicholls, Richard Burbidge’s decking product manager, said: “The 2005 season was something of a mixed bag. Despite industry forecasts that decking sales would increase by another 10% last year, the market as a whole failed to deliver such growth, although the sector is still extremely buoyant.”

Adam Pulfer, marketing director at Hoppings Softwood Products plc, said: “We see the market as having the potential for modest growth for 2006. As we all witnessed during the second half of 2005, consumers reined in their spending and we can’t see that changing short term.”

But he said there was good future sales growth potential, especially due to the planned smoking ban, the Olympics and a general consumer awareness to use external spaces.

Rising costs

Arbordeck said the rising cost of raw material and production for 2006, coupled with a shortage of qual-ity lumber, could incite a supply issue for the market as a whole. But it remains confident following a successful pre-season stock-building.

SCA Timber Supply said it was looking forward to a good year of consistent growth, while Brooks Bros said the decking season was getting longer, with contractors now completing contracts during winter months.

Hoppings said branding was important to create focus for garden products at builders merchant stockists, so it has created a new range called Q-garden, including kit pergolas, Hazard Class 4 planed landscape sleepers and treated garden cladding.

“The future holds great potential for garden wood products but we do need merchants to grab the initiative and sell the garden wood range in depth,” said Mr Pulfer.