Hillmount Garden centre prunes costs thanks to world wide web
Hillmount Garden Centre
Online technology has revolutionised the horticulture industry, having a direct impact on Hillmount Garden Centre outside Belfast.
Selecting and buying plants, a process which once required garden centre owners to travel to meet growers face-to-face, can now be done entirely online, horticulturist and Hillmount owner, Alan Mercer, has said.
The plant-buying sites, which are open only to buyers who are registered through an association, allow the growers to connect directly with a wide range of garden centre owners.
Mr Mercer estimates that the online buying network has saved his business around £2,000-£3,000 each year directly in foreign travel since he started using it four years ago.
Previously in peak season, he had to travel to Holland every three weeks to select stock and negotiate prices.
The convenience of the process is also attractive for many garden centre owners as very few staff hours are taken up by the online buying process compared to traditional buying trips. Stock is delivered quickly, usually just three working days after it is purchased.
Hillmount Garden Centre - which has a restaurant famously championed by Radio Ulster journalist and presenter, Steven Nolan - was founded 75 years ago. It employs a total of 75 staff.
Alan Mercer and his father Robin run two branches, one in the Castlereagh hills and a second store, opened two years ago, in Bangor. The Belfast store is set on a four acre site with 60,000 sq ft of retail space. The Ulster Rugby team, and Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt and his wife, former broadcaster Linda Bryans, are regular customers.
However, there are some things which Mr Mercer acknowledges cannot be bought online. During a recent trip to Denmark, the horticulturist was invited to a cookery masterclass. He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided it was something he needed in his business.
The company charges £100 per person for a full day at the Hillmount BBQ Academy, although shorter classes are also available. The courses are run from May through to September and teach participants how to impress guests with several courses of barbecued cuisine.
Mr Mercer first launched a range of Weber Barbecue equipment - the UK's most popular range - in store six years ago, when few people in Northern Ireland had even heard of the brand. But since then, with the help of the barbecue cookery school, the range has gained in popularity.
Mr Mercer said: "Surprisingly, we have sold 25% more garden furniture this year. I think it's because the bad weather has meant that people are making purchases they have been putting off for the past few years. They realise that, okay, the weather is bad today but this garden furniture will last for three years or more."
However, despite the lack of any prime gardening weather this year, plant sales have stayed constant at the store, something which Mr Mercer believes was helped by a number of multi-buy offers run in its branches.