Forecourts are the ultimate distress channel for flower and plant purchases. Consumers know that when everywhere else is closed, they can be sure that when they fill up their tanks they can also pick up some blooms for gifting, celebrations or commiseration.

Flower retailing in the forecourt channel still meets these distress purchase needs, but with the popularity of home improvement programmes, and an increasing trend towards self-purchase, the profile of the flower and plant consumer is broadening. As it does, opportunities are opening up for the forecourt sector to grow its share of the horticulture market – if they get the solution right.

Andy Thornton, managing director at retail consultancy SRCG, says if they approach it professionally, operators can enjoy high-volume and high- value horticulture sales: “I was in a petrol station in South Africa where the forecourt store is a Woolworths implant. Woolworths is M&S over there, so they have really high quality flowers and, surprise, surprise, people buy lots of them,” he says.

Working to gain a larger slice of the flowers and plants pie is well worth the effort. The Flower Council of Holland UK (FCH UK) places the value of the UK flowers and plants market at £1.45bn. However, with average spend per capita at £26, the UK market lags behind the Continent where consumers spend anything from £40-£100 per year, indicating there is plenty of opportunity to grow the category across all retail channels in the UK – including forecourts.

Total, for example, says flowers account for one per cent of its turnover and, depending on the arrangement with the suppliers – either firm sale or sale or return – flowers can be a high-margin line. Flowers feature particularly heavily in the oil company’s Bonjour-branded sites. “Flowers are very important in all stores, but particularly in our Bonjour stores where the whole focus and emphasis is on fresh. They are generally the first thing a customer sees, and are an important factor in reinforcing the fresh image,” says Rachel Dawson, retail marketing executive at Total.

Flowers and plants are the freshest products in store, with a sensuality that can breathe colour and charm into the overall offer while boosting the bottom line. Colin Hills, managing director at one of Europe’s leading horticulture growers and distributors, Flowerfete, says the category offers tremendous potential to boost profits and add interest to the store. “Depending on how the retailer wants to do it, there are generous margins to be made, and there are plenty of opportunities to brighten up the interior and exterior of a retail outlet,” says Hills.

The key to getting the offer right is understanding the drivers behind purchase. Today, around 60 per cent of UK sales are self-purchase, with much of this impulse, but key calendar events are still a major source of sales. Says Total’s Dawson: “The products tend to be distress with our busiest times of year being Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day and Christmas. Our sales increase by 700 per cent on February 13 and 14 – 38 per cent of these are sold on February 13,” she says.

Hills at Flowerfete agrees gifting is a major driver, and as such works closely with major confectionery manufacturers on cross-promotions. This year it is producing link saves of bouquets and Ferrero Rocher chocolates for Total, and with Lindt for RoadChef. Such supermarket-style promotional mechanics add credibility to the floral offer – crucial in an increasingly competitive market.

“There is a misconception from consumers about the quality, price and availability of flowers from forecourts and it is up to us to challenge these perceptions by constantly improving our offer,” says Dawson.

This illustrates the benefits of taking inspiration from the strategies of some of the major grocery multiples, not only in terms of pricing, but also merchandising and looking after the product in store. Says Smith: “Flowers should arrive in buckets with water containing flower food, which will help keep the flowers free of bacteria so that they last longer. Don’t mix new flowers with old or put new flowers in old water – you risk cross bacterial contamination. Remove flowers that are past their sell-by date from the stand, and protect flowers from the elements if displayed outside,” she says. Such attention to detail works – Total, for example, enjoyed a 50 per cent uplift in sales by simply moving the flower-stands inside of its larger Bonjour stores.

Horticulture retailing is a specialist pursuit, but one way of ensuring product is handled correctly and merchandised to its optimum potential is to partner with a horticulture professional – something Thornton believes the sector will see more of. “I think it’s fair to say that some of the forecourt players are desperately looking for partners who could help them develop the category. There are people out there who think they can, and there are oil companies that need some help,” says Thornton.

Flowerfete has plenty of experience of what its specialist services can bring the independent forecourt operator. “The independent market is a major part of our business – it’s very important. We can supply and service any business from one site to 600,” says Hills. Gone are the days when a guy would pull a bucket of flowers out of the boot of his car and scribble an invoice on the back of a cigarette packet. Today, the name of the game is professionalism, and in order to successfully meet client needs the company employs state-of-the-art handheld technology, and a fleet of ultra-modern, purpose-built delivery vehicles manned by highly trained horticulture merchandisers. “What we do is take the headache away. We deliver direct to store, we merchandise and supply the range, and point of sale material” says Hills.

Retailing flowers and plants is worth doing well. The product can generate good margins, add kudos and style to the store and help convince shoppers that the business is in touch with consumer trends. “Horticulture is very vogue and has become an essential part of a home or place of work. Look at horticulture designers such as Paula Pryke – they are the Delia Smiths of the flower world,” says Hills. With the right offer and a commitment to excellence, forecourt retailers are in a position to benefit from a market that is becoming synonymous with style – and profitability.