With storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge cutting a swathe through the UK in February, those garden product manufacturers that include fencing in their portfolio are seeing a silver lining in the clouds.

One manufacturer commented wryly that “jokes about trade winds blowing” were circulating and that many customers may be thinking they had under-ordered on fence panels. Fencing contractors are certainly busy, with lead times even for quotes for nonemergency work at around four weeks.

“There has been a significant jump in sales of fence panels since the end of January, attributable to the storms we’ve had,” said Guy Grainger, group chief executive officer of market leader Forest Garden. “This boost means that year-to-date sales are significantly ahead of the same period last year. 

“As a seasonal business we have to be ready for this increased demand and we build up our finished panel stocks with the aim to enter the season with at least 400,000 fence panels on the ground.”

Mr Grainger added that by virtue of having its own sawmills, Forest always holds enough componentry to allow it quickly to increase assembly capacity and to produce more than 50,000 fence panels a week – a situation it finds itself in at the moment. Fencing demand apart, the season is shaping up pretty well for timber garden products after a somewhat variable 2019. For Forest Garden, 2019 started well in terms of sales and 2020 has followed suit.

“They really took off in March, staying strong through to the end of September before tailing off more than usual in the fourth quarter, with noticeably weak demand in December reflecting wider reports of weak consumer demand and confidence, as well as poor weather conditions,” said Mr Grainger.

“2020 has started well and there is every indication that it will be a good year. Despite the wet weather a mild winter seems to have prompted people to get on with jobs outside and in the garden.”

For Hutton, the garden products division of Severn Valley Woodworks, last year was “a record”, with total sales up by 30% and 2020 is looking promising so far.

“I would be very disappointed if this year didn’t beat 2019,” said David Twigg, director. “As things currently stand we are already 20% up on the same point last year. We’re just coming off the back of a record January and February for volume and value of our machined and treated output.”

Zest 4 Leisure, part of the P&A Group, reported that 2019 was a “challenging for the garden products industry” but that business had grown by 18% over the past year.

“Uncertainty caused by Brexit negatively impacted consumer confidence when it came to buying ‘big ticket’ garden items, although sales of small items received a boost,” said Alwyn Williams, head of Zest 4 Leisure. “The sale of the Wyevale Group also played into the hands of some suppliers whose products were already stocked by the companies that bought the individual stores.

“Our home delivery strand, Zest Direct, had another very successful season, which kicked off sooner than we could have predicted due to the unseasonably warm February, and continued longer due to the milder autumn.

This now appears to be becoming the norm. “With regards to 2020, the current uncertainty with Brexit in terms of what the trade deal will look like is causing some pricing issues,” continued Mr Williams.

David Twigg agreed that raw material prices will rise and also attributes this in part to Brexit.

“Scandinavian and Russian mills’ remit is to secure the best price they can and they’ll see Brexit as an opportunity to increase prices,” he said.

Forest Garden is staying positive, however. “Whilst uncertainty remains as to what our final exit rapprochement will look like, we still have a full season to trade under existing EU regulations,” said Mr Grainger. “That is a positive fact. It certainly looks like consumer caution in the last quarter of 2019 led to pent-up demand that has now been released. With interest rates remaining low, consumer confidence does appear strong.”

Improved Glee

Hutton and Zest 4 Leisure are both regular exhibitors at Glee and said last September’s show was good – surprisingly so, in fact, and maybe marking a return to its former glory.

“Glee 2019 actually surpassed our expectations,” said Zest’s Alwyn Williams. “We launched a number of new products, which included decorative garden furniture, grow-your-own products, a planter to raise money for charity and a new aggregate range.

We also showcased some of our best-selling products, such as the Noah’s Arbour.

“The whole feel of Glee seems to have changed for the better in the last couple of years and this has had an impact in terms of the volume of customers visiting our stand,” continued Mr Williams.

Meanwhile, David Twigg reported that Hutton opened “a record number of new accounts” following exhibiting at Glee. He put the increase in visitor numbers to the Hutton stand down to the appeal of its famously robust products.

He also noted a change in the show. “I have certainly seen more competitors coming into our sector and there were definitely more people selling wood products at Glee,” he said. “I might be reading too much into it but I wonder if that’s down to the gradual demise of plastic.”

He added that the ‘British made’ stamp on Hutton’s products continued to be a selling point and reported other companies now doing the same.

“It was extremely noticeable at Glee how many people are putting out the same message. We’ve been doing it for five or six years but at the last Glee there were a number of people flying the flag for British made products.”

Hutton has just gone through the design and costing process for its 2021 products but for this year it has introduced new arbours, planters, trellis, a children’s picnic table and extensions to ranges.

Several of Forest Garden’s new lines have a very contemporary look. “We’re using vertical slats across new fencing and have a new pergola arch, which will sit very well in an urban garden setting,” said Mr Grainger.

“We also have a new range of log cabins, which are easier to shop via a clear hierarchy of size and roof style and which feature improved tear resistant polyester roof felt.”

Zest 4 Leisure’s new products include the Santorini swing, which features bowed laminated supports and side trellis panels; the four-tiered Diamond raised bed; and the Manhattan plant surround, which has a multi-level base that can be adjusted to any height.

“We have also launched a stunning range of hardwood furniture made from jatoba, which has a distinctive reddish hue,” said Mr Williams. “The range comprises a leisure seating set with coffee table, a dining set and a contemporary bench.”

As for what’s been selling well up to now, sheds and greenhouses have performed strongly for several manufacturers.

“Sheds continue to surprise us, not only in their increasing popularity but also in the variety of uses to which they are put, other than storing garden equipment and bikes,” said Mr Grainger.

“There is a definite increase in consumer interest for grow-your-own and we see this reflected in rising demand for our affordably priced greenhouses,” he continued.

“Our Victorian Walkaround and Victorian Tall Wall greenhouses, suited to where space is at a premium, have both proven to be strong sellers.”

Summerhouse sales have remained constant for Forest, he added but the upgraded range of log cabins is expected to be even more popular for use as office spaces, hobby rooms and gyms.

The appeal of Hutton’s sheds is their high specification yet affordable price, said Mr Twigg. “Our sheds are very robust. For example, while some shed makers may use ex 16mm TGV for the roof sections, we use ex 25mm.”

He added that at Glee 2019 the company launched a new security shed, which features a smaller window, a full-length piano hinge to the door and a through locking mechanism. “It’s gone incredibly well,” he said.

Meanwhile, Zest 4 Leisure has seen an increase in sales of its larger items, such as its Cheltenham arbour and also its garden furniture ranges by more than 25%.

“This has continued to shape our new product development and this year we have added the Appleton gazebo to our range,” said Mr Williams. “It has extra roof height, an open entrance and slatted side panels, all of which give maximum ventilation, making it ideal for providing shelter while cooking on a barbecue.”

Painted products

While Zest 4 Leisure is “looking at the viability” of introducing painted products, Forest Garden is already capitalising on the growing trend for consumers to personalise their products with paints and stains.

“Anthracite Grey has been one of the most requested colours,” said Mr Grainger. “For 2020 we introduced a range of prepainted contemporary slatted fence panels, garden structures and garden furniture in this exact shade.

“This follows the introduction of our painted Retreat sheds in 2019 and fits with the trend for ultra-modern urban gardens where colours are understated,” he continued.

“The painted panels are spray painted at the factory and represent excellent value for money and convenience.”

As for more ‘behind the scenes’ developments, Severn Valley Woodworks has installed a new moulding line, giving the company the additional capacity it needs.

“It is mainly used for production for our agricultural sector but it’s freed up capacity on our other lines [including those used for Hutton products], so it’s been good,” said Mr Twigg.

Over at Zest 4 Leisure, investment has been made in a new state-of-the-art packing solution for the home delivery side of the business. “It will ensure that we keep pace with demand during peak periods and should shorten lead times,” said Mr Williams.

“Our teams will also continue to process orders over the Easter and May bank holidays so that we can offer our customers the best possible service during those critical peak periods.”

He added that the company will be working with a new home delivery partner this season.

As for Forest Garden, a major change this year is a move to a new, flexible, modular shed design system following a capital investment of more than £500,000 in purpose-built automation.

“The new sectional modular panels make the handling and assembly of the shed so much easier and consumers now have a variety of options as to where door and window panels can be sited to accommodate individual garden layouts and designs,” said Mr Grainger.

“The new overlap sheds are now stronger, more structurally stable and longer lasting as we have integrated up to 30% more timber than previous models for a more rigid and stronger construction, with patented metal roof trusses and brackets to further aid assembly. Solid timber floors are now standard on all models, both pressure and dip treated, making them ideal for heavier equipment and shelving.

“At a stroke we have changed the way sheds have been made for the last 100 years,” he said.