Research analyst Mintel has concluded what many in the home and gift trade have long suspected, which is that garden centres and other leisure outlets have become the new shopping centres and retail destinations of choice. Welcome to the world of the Rural Department Store.
With footfall numbers in shopping centres and the high street shrinking, and consumers moving online, selling product has become more challenging and consumers are coming to expect a retail ‘experience’. Mintel’s senior analyst Jane Westgarth says this puts garden centres in a very strong position, as they are essentially leisure destinations that offer a full family day out.
If cross-selling is the key word, these guys have it in spades, with many offering not just an astonishingly broad product selection, but full-scale concessions from specialist complementary brands, such as Lakeland at Dobbies.
The garden centre trade with their big free car parks, family-friendly cafes, Santa grottoes and man-attracting gadgets, cottoned onto this potential a few years ago and have been on the rise ever since, not just surviving but blooming throughout the recession.
Even the political arena is on their side, as sustainability takes root on the global stage, reviving urban areas and Greening Grey Britain rise higher on the British government agenda. School children are now regularly taught the art and joys of gardening, as city dwellers simultaneously decide they want home grown vine tomatoes, mood enhancing flowers and free-radical soaking plants to brighten up their lives and bring numerous health benefits.
Sarah Squire, who heads up the family business, Squire’s Garden Centres, said: “Primary schools are doing more now to encourage children to grow plants. There is still more to be done to promote horticulture in secondary schools and we have been working with the RHS on a project to enthuse children at that stage of their education. I think this is as key as celebrity endorsement in promoting horticulture to the next generation”.
Many of the intrinsic strengths of a garden centre cannot be emulated by other retailers. They are often located in enviable rural locations where they own their land and don’t have to worry about leases, away from congested town centres and determined traffic wardens.
Some eighty per cent of Britain’s 2,700 or so garden centres are also independently owned,stable family businesses, reinforcing their local appeal and unique characteristics whilst allowing agility and responsiveness to customer demands. Even national garden centre chains like Notcutts and Blue Diamond manage to achieve a cozy local feel
The best garden centres have a creative flair – facilitated by plenty of space – that’s started to disappear from the mainstream high street. Witness the stupendous Barton Grange in Preston, a huge privately owned centre that is one of the UK’s most impressive retail operations, complete with hotel complex, marina, cinema and a curling rink on the way. And that’s before you’ve even got to the farm shop, cook shop, Christmas shop, greeting card section, fashion accessories or huge gift selection. Never mind the incredible selection of plants, gardening products, gadgets and accessories. With a lovely hotel just around the corner, you can even spend the night.
If you’re lucky your trip might also coincide with one of the many special weather-beating events held at Barton Grange throughout the year, ranging from Mediterranean food extravaganzas to Mother’s Day promotions.
Then, while you’re pondering the fact they’ve got it all, you can enjoy a lovely cup of tea and lunch in one of the in-house restaurants that generate a huge percentage of overall takings. Many British garden centres report that catering accounts for up to 25% of all sales. Food, in fact – that essential daily item we can’t live without – is one of the most lucrative areas for many gardeb centres, who have grown far beyond the odd jar of jam and artisan chutney into full-scale butchers, cheese counters and even fresh fruit and veg, much of it sourced locally and grown organically.
The like of Barton Grange can boast merchandising teams to rival Selfridges. Marketing manager Kate Ford says top notch merchandising is essential for a retail destination that welcomes over 750,000 customers a year and who want to see something new on a regular basis. “They create jaw-dropping displays, because we want it to be a real experience for people when they come here.”
Where garden centres tend to fall behind is the online space, where the instore feelgood experience is hard to replicate, especially for families. They tend not to deliver the instant gratification required by millennial shoppers and busy commuters, who mobile shop on the train or during lunch breaks.
For many who like a slower pace of life this may come as a relief, but it’s unlikely that Britain’s most resourceful category of retailers will rest on their laurels for long, especially as lifestyle retailers start threatening to cross the Rubicon with sales of fresh plants and flowers. Watch out for the next generation of gardening specialists such as Myrtle and Bloom as they grow into the internet and master the multi-channel experience with spectacular floral flair.
There are more untapped markets beyond that. In the words of former Blue Peter gardener and tireless industry consultant Chris Collins, who’s busy initiating school children everywhere to the art of gardening: “The challenge for industry is to engage people who don’t usually garden, especially those with disposable incomes. There’s a lot of potential business out there” so why, he asks, is the industry not doing [even] more to widen the fold?” The earth is the starting point but the sky’s the limit for these folk!
Images from top to bottom: Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Brigg Garden Centre, former Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins on the school run, Sarah Squire, Cardwell Garden Centre, Barton Grange, Petersham Nurseries, Barton Grange, Myrtle and Bloom, Vivid Art fairy garden.