This time last year no one in the timber decking and garden products sector was expecting the 2023 season to be spectacular following the boom times of the lockdown era and it’s fair to say that those expectations were met.

“In 2021 and 2022 sales were at unsustainable levels everywhere in the market,” said David Twigg, director at Severn Valley Woodworks, which markets its garden products under the Hutton brand and sells to timber merchants, garden centres and country stores.

“Inevitably they slowed up in 2023 and much of the reason for that is that in 2021/2022 people had bought and committed to product – having previously struggled with supply – and created high levels of stock against hopeful levels of demand. But with life returning to a degree of normality, that demand wasn’t there and we saw people sitting on large volumes of stock, which in turn impacted the level of supply.”

Zest’s core business is with garden centres as well as offering an increasing number of its products to online garden retail customers. It also offers customers the option to buy a small number of products for home delivery direct from itself, although this is still a very small part of Zest’s overall business.

Simon Davison, head of commercial development at Zest, agrees that customers were looking to reduce, rather than bolster their stocks last year and that there were other factors at play, too.

Zest’s Eco Hive Composter taps into the home composting trend

“The market continued to be challenging in 2023 and fluctuating timber prices is part of the equation,” he said. “The feedback from customers was that their focus during 2023 was on reducing stock levels and managing their slow selling lines. The general economic issues and its impact on disposable income were also a factor, as was the very wet and unsettled weather during the season.

“Having said that, the consumer demand for products that are made from sustainable materials, and which enhance a ‘natural environment’ is clearly coming through and Zest is committed to products which meet that need in an accessible and affordable way,” he added.

The simple fact is that many consumers completed their garden improvement projects during the lockdown periods and, as replacing a shed or laying a new deck is not something you do every year, there’s less of that happening.

“Our shed sales were down because everybody that wanted one had already bought one [in the previous year or two],” said Mr Twigg. “Some of these products then realign with the new housing market but there have been pressures on people moving house, which has narrowed that opportunity.”

He added that as well as its own shed sales being impacted, sales of its cladding products to other shed manufacturers had also seen a dip.

Power Sheds’ 6×6 shiplap corner summerhouse

“I guess it’s a sign of the times,” said Mr Twigg. “I remember speaking to a shed manufacturer during the pandemic and his lead times were four months, but when I spoke to him just before Christmas, he said he could turn something around in four days. His order book is vastly reduced and that has an impact all the way through the chain.”

Bradford-based shed and garden building specialist Power Sheds, which is part of the BSW Group, notes that the industry did experience a return to normality in terms of seasonality, so in that sense its predictions for the year were spot on.

“However, beneath the surface, the landscape has been challenging,” said Jack Sutcliffe, director and co-founder. “The exponential growth of Covid led shed manufacturers to invest heavily in expanding their production capacities, resulting in an oversupply relative to the actual demand. In a bid to stay competitive and maintain operations, many companies engaged in a race to the bottom, drastically reducing prices. This intense competition has, unfortunately, squeezed profit margins for shed companies, making it a tough period for some manufacturers. Despite the anticipated seasonality, the industry has had to navigate a delicate balance between oversupply and reduced pricing, presenting a unique set of challenges that require strategic adaptation.”

All that being said, of course, there was still business to be had and Power Sheds, for one, has pressed ahead with developments.

After having “a great first year” with its log cabin range, in the last month it has picked up the keys to its new log cabin manufacturing facility. Also in Bradford, the 33,000ft2 facility is an important step in enhancing the company’s production capabilities.

“We’re also eagerly anticipating the delivery of our AMD log cabin notching machine in March/April, a significant investment that will play a crucial role in enabling us to widen our log cabin range, offering customers a broader and more versatile selection,” said Mr Sutcliffe.

“We’ve already initiated testing by sending over a pack of machined logs to Belgium where the machine is being made,” he continued. “The machine’s capability to process and notch a log within six seconds is the big improvement from the current duration of over one minute per log. Not only does it significantly enhance speed, but it also ensures precision and a superior finish to the machined logs.

“We’re excited about the potential impact this expansion will have on our market presence and look forward to the opportunities it brings.”

Mr Sutcliffe added that as well as housing the notching machine, the new factory will also accommodate the development of other upcoming products.

He also reported that investments in machinery and in-house training to enhance operation efficiency had meant the company hadn’t needed to expand its manufacturing team as much as in previous years, when it has recruited heavily.

“However, we’ve grown our office team to help manage the projects we have in our pipeline,” he said. “We are expanding into new markets, such as into Germany and the Republic of Ireland, and so have made additions to our finance team as launching in these regions involves fairly complicated (post Brexit!) financial planning to ensure compliance.

“As the company explores overseas markets, particularly the potential success in Germany, there’s a strategic consideration to establish production facilities closer to those markets,” said Mr Sutcliffe. “This means that, if successful, we may opt for manufacturing in mainland Europe rather than exporting from the UK.”

Zest said its steadily expanding range of outdoor entertaining products all performed “extremely well” last season, with its Pizza Oven Table and its triple award-winning Garden Bar and Two Stool Set doing particularly well with stockists.

Perhaps reflecting the huge increase in internet shopping which began in the Covid years, the two new Zest parcel storage solutions – the Keep Safe Parcel Store and the Parcel Store with Planter – did “exceptionally well” with dropship retailers last year, said Mr Davison.

Hutton’s famously robust garden furniture products also did “very well” last year.

“The commercial grade products we supply that generally end up in pubs and outdoor eating venues did very well,” said Mr Twigg. “This suggests to me that there’s a bit of a bounce back from people not going out as much [during Covid] to venturing out more. And pubs that didn’t refurbish their outdoor seating because they were trying to conserve as much money as they could are now able to do so. There was definitely a resurgence of our outdoor seating going into the commercial sector. But I’d have to say that seating in general did ok last year – probably better than other [garden] products.”

As for this year, due to customer demand, Hutton is reintroducing some of the products it had previously retired from its ranges and these include some bird tables, picnic tables, garden seating and grow-your-own.

These ‘new’ products won’t be held in stock but will be manufactured on a special order basis and with a minimum order quantity requirement.

It’s gratifying to have customers request these products, said Mr Twigg, adding “we are seeing some good things happening already and are supplying some of our early season product into customers now in anticipation of their own spring sales. It’s going pretty well.”

Zest always has a raft of new products and this year is no exception.

“For this season the new Terraza Modular Outdoor Kitchen appears to be the standout product and continues the theme of outdoor entertaining,” said Mr Davison. “It’s interesting for the market to see an outdoor kitchen made in solid, sustainable natural wood at a very affordable price. Outdoor entertaining is more popular than ever and the year ahead for big sports events – not to mention warmer summers – will encourage even more outdoor living and entertaining.

“We have also had equally positive feedback and orders for the Stirling Arbour and Eco Hive Composter. The former is all about an attractive arbour providing shelter on a smaller footprint.

Hutton Herefordshire arbour

And the Eco Hive Composter is a fabulous way to bring good looks and style to the massive home composting trend. The new Zest product, as the name suggests, resembles a traditional beehive but has all the necessary functionality. The new Tall Botanical Greenhouse has generated a great deal of interest, delivering a beautifully crafted timber greenhouse on a small footprint.” After a brief flirtation with an earlier time of the year, the annual Glee event is returning to its traditional September slot at the NEC this year (September 10-12) and Zest is looking forward to previewing more new products then.

“For 2025 our new product development team are currently developing an exciting range of new products and we will have more details of these later in the season,” said Mr Davison. “Grow-your-own products remain a big and increasing part of the mix.”

And, he added, “moving Glee back into September is far better for us as it will enable us to confirm prices for the following season, which is what many customers wanted to know.”

Power Sheds has also been making significant strides in diversifying its product offerings over the past year.

Pergolas are now part of Power Sheds’ expanded range

“We expanded with the introduction of corner sheds, log stores, tool/storage sheds, and pergolas,” said Mr Sutcliffe. “The response to these additions has been promising, reflecting the market’s appetite for diverse outdoor solutions. Our timber decking kits, introduced last year, have particularly stood out with a strong performance in their first year of launch. Currently, we are working on a range of gazebos and, excitingly, we’re also venturing into children’s wooden play equipment.”

Having large statement pieces in outside spaces is a trend and Zest is seeing increasing evidence of this.

“Our range of gazebos and arches has definitely benefited from this and they will be featured strongly in future product ranges,” said Mr Davison. “The need for a ‘statement piece’ on a smaller footprint is why we have launched the Stirling arbour as a covered dining space, which delivers exactly the option the market needs.”

While they may not have the same obvious visual impact as a big structure, planters and raised beds remain core to Zest’s range.

“And in our experience they tend to be less impacted than other categories,” said Mr Davison. “It’s a very competitive category, however, we have definitely noticed an increasing focus on sustainability and having a range which is produced using ethically sourced timber that is PEFC certified is receiving increasingly positive feedback from customers. Zest’s new Chelsea Square Planter is stunning but also picks up on all of these important market themes.”

And, speaking of certification, in the past 12 months Power Sheds has become both FSC and PEFC accredited, an achievement which, said Mr Sutcliffe, underscores its commitment to responsible and sustainable practices in the sourcing of its materials.

Hutton’s commercial grade outdoor furniture is selling well

“It’s a significant milestone for our company, reflecting our ongoing efforts to contribute positively to the global forestry and timber industry.”

Looking ahead, manufacturers are optimistic that while the boom times might be over, 2024 will shape up well – as long as the weather gods are smiling.

“Easter always traditionally marks the start of the season, and the slightly earlier timing will be helpful,” said Mr Davison. “But for us the bigger driver will be the weather, and we are overdue a warm and dry spring to give us the springboard for what we believe will be a much stronger season.”

“I do think there is money to spend out there and that timber merchants and garden centres have sold through their stocks and are going again,” said Mr Twigg. “We’re back up to substantially more on the forward ordering again [on 2023] and we’re coming into spring and Easter, which is one of the prime selling times for Hutton products.” ­


Vicky Nuttall, director of GIMA, and Simon Davison of Zest and a GIMA council member give TTJ an insight into the timber garden products sector and how it’s currently faring

“There are a number of factors currently contributing to the performance of timber products in the market,” said Simon Davison, head of commercial development at Zest Outdoor Living and a Garden Industry Manufacturers’ Association (GIMA) council member.

Vicky Nuttall: products associated with outdoor entertaining remain a growth area

“The price of Polish softwood, used for many of the garden timber products in the UK market has now stabilised having increased significantly in recent seasons. However, continued high demand from China has meant prices have not reduced as they have for softwood produced in other countries, and the price of these are currently much closer to pre-pandemic levels due to supply currently outstripping demand.

“The cost of transport has also stabilised and although fuel prices are still higher than they were pre-pandemic, they don’t appear to be increasing.

“As the materials are sourced from Europe rather than further afield, delivery lead times and container cost fluctuations are not a factor. So, overall there is an expectation that the period of significant increases in prices, driven by the factors above are now over.

“Retail customers’ focus for the last 18 months has been on reducing overstocks and managing slower selling lines,” continued Mr Davison. “However, the cost-of-living crisis and geopolitical turmoil have both impacted on customers’ discretionary spending, and this, combined with two seasons of unsettled weather, have meant that reducing over-stocks has taken longer than many expected.

“Based upon the continued economic uncertainty, and customers’ experience over the last couple of years we expect to see a period of continued caution in terms of buying behaviour and a ‘little and often’ approach has been far more evident,” said Mr Davison.

“However, there are risks associated with this as a strong season could lead to shortages as suppliers will not easily be able to increase production as they have scaled back due to the lack of orders from customers for the last two seasons.

“Despite all of this there is a sense of cautious optimism about the season ahead,” said Mr Davison.

“Demand for products that are made from sustainable materials, and which enhance a ‘natural environment’ are clearly coming through and a specific aspect of this has been outdoor

entertaining, with demand increasing sharply during lockdown, and this remains a growth area,” said Vicky Nuttall, GIMA director.

“As people increasingly entertain at home, this is evident in the demand for outdoor dining sets, bars and kitchens and for structures that will allow us to use our outside spaces even when the weather is unsettled.

“We are also seeing more demand for modular products that allow customers to adapt the product to their specific space,” continued Ms Nuttall.

“One category which has seen some challenges has been the grow-your-own sector. The expectation – based upon the experience of everyone during the pandemic and with the overall increase in awareness and focus on health and wellbeing – was that the growth in demand for these products would continue. However, whilst still very popular, this has not been the case for the last couple of seasons.

“A number of suggestions have been put forward to explain this, but the consensus appears to be that it is simply down to the weather.

“For the last two seasons during the traditional grow-your-own period, we have seen very wet and unsettled weather,” said Ms Nuttall.

“It remains to be seen if this is just down to the unpredictability of the UK’s weather, or if, more worryingly, these are early signs of the impact of climate change, which could have a longer-term impact on customers buying behaviour.”