The family who own a traditional 80 year old garden centre business nestled in the Castlereagh Hills says that digital transformation and the exceptional weather has enabled Hillmount to survive in the past three weeks.

Taking the business online has resulted in sales increasing by 66% year on year for the first three weeks in April. They have sold 40% more barbecues year on year and twice as many seeds and bedding plants.

Prior to lockdown, the Mercer family had dabbled with offering an online service but in early March they had begun the painstaking process of devoting time to creating and developing an e-commerce platform on their newly designed website, taking photos of various plants, barbecues and garden furniture and manually uploading them to the platform in a bid to offer old and new customers a choice of shopping experience, one which up until then depended almost in its entirety on the 2,000 plus customers who visited the store every day.

The transformation could not have come at a more crucial time for the Mercer family, their dedicated staff and suppliers. Faced with the possibility of not being able to pay their staff, losing thousands of plants and the dire situation of not being able to pay suppliers, some of whom are local growers whose livelihood depends on the business they receive from Hillmount, Alan Mercer says that coupled with the exceptional temperatures, the business has so far been surviving the lockdown.

Alan Mercer, Managing Director, Hillmount, said: “Our first concern when we were instructed to close our garden lifestyle stores in Belfast, Bangor and Ards, were for our 100 staff, the majority of whom we have had to furlough, and for our suppliers. Some of these growers depend on our business simply to put food on the table for their families and, as a fourth generation family business, we understand how critical it is to be able to keep going. The beauty of being part of a family business is the agility with which we are able to make good decisions for the business, our staff, our loyal customers and our suppliers.

“When we closed the doors to the public three weeks ago we honestly thought that our 80 year old family business would not survive until the end of April but we are grateful that thankful to customers who have been loyal to our business over the years and new customers who are contacting us every day expressing the need to be able to enjoy their gardens to assist their mental and physical health. We have been able to transform our business to operating predominantly online but we still offer the older generation who may not be online the option of phoning our store and placing their orders although the majority of our average 300 orders every day are either being placed via our new website or by private message on facebook.

“We are learning interesting facts too about our customers with each new day. The time of day that most of them think about their gardens and place an online order, which days they prefer to place orders in preference to others and their tastes gas versus charcoal barbecues and which plants are their favourites. We are in awe of their loyalty and their willingness for us to build on Hillmount’s success during this crisis. We are mitigating any risk for ourselves and our customers, we are abiding by social distancing and keeping up to date with the regulations to operate safely and we are proud that we can continue to serve the community throughout Northern Ireland.”

Alan adds though that the next few weeks could pose new problems as some growers have stopped growing so there could now be a potential issue with supply and demand of plants, garden furniture and barbecues. Some deliveries are now delayed until mid June. He is also concerned for customers as they return to the store when the government allows the business to physically trade again. He says: “The complexity involved with considering to open our stores again to the public is something that we are working on now in order to make our stores as safe as possible for that day when it arrives. Until then we are happy to help the health and lift the mood of our customers who are staying safe at home and who continue to seek solace in their gardens and buy online.

Hillmount garden lifestyle business is a fourth generation family business which celebrates its 80th anniversary this summer.

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