Behind Crocus bricks-and-mortar addition

Online operators looking at physical presence to raise brand awareness.

Acquisition: Dorney Court Kitchen Garden in Berkshire
Acquisition: Dorney Court Kitchen Garden in Berkshire

Online garden centre and winner of 25 RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medals Crocus has bought its first bricks-and-mortar garden centre, at Dorney near Windsor in Berkshire, as a first step into a new type of garden centre plant specialist, bricks-and-mortar retailing.

The Walled Garden Centre at Dorney was formerly a Blooms of Bressingham store before having other owners. It was most recently run by Ryan Wasmuth and Kevin Gaskell. Crocus plans a garden school at the centre, now known as Dorney Court Kitchen Garden, as well as developing it as a plant centre but has yet to start work since buying it in February.

"We want to make it in our own image," says Crocus co-founder Peter Clay. "We're keeping it going this year and will relaunch next year in slightly different clothes. It is part of our ambition to see if we can change the way garden centres are done to more reflect what we do at Crocus. It's been something we've been thinking about for a while to see whether or not we can make going to a plant centre a bit more inspiring than perhaps what's currently available and do something better and different to what's out there."

Purer plant offer

Crocus's move is part of a common thread of online operators looking at having a more physical presence to raise brand awareness. Crocus has previously said that it wants to offer a purer plant offer than garden centres, with less emphasis on catering, concessions and gifts. The centre is approximately three acres and turns over less than £1m.

Crocus launched in 2000 and has led online plant retailing, now turning over £17m, with Wyevale Garden Centres launching online and Dobbies partnering with Ocado to upgrade and expand its online proposition this year. Crocus's fellow RHS Chelsea Flower Show supplier Hortus Loci opened a retail nursery this year near Hook in Hampshire, and Hambrooks offers a hybrid garden design centre in Titchfield, Hampshire, as a showcase and retail outlet.

Glendale is re-opening the plant centre at Rufford Abbey Country Park in Nottinghamshire where it has recently taken over the contract and is also bidding on a site in South Wales, looking to increase sales of plants through specialist plant centres aimed mainly at retail customers.

Greater market share

Dobbies chief executive Nicholas Marshall says online gardening only has a few per cent of the market, but Crocus believes it can reach 25-30%. However, Crocus has taken a step back from plans to expand internationally because product is 20% more expensive since Brexit and sterling's slump.

Crocus has a website, catalogue, nursery open days - at its base in Windlesham, Surrey - and could go into click-and-collect. Caroline Linger joined Crocus from her horticulture buying role at Wyevale Garden Centres in October 2016.

Clay says of garden centres' ability to sell plants online: "It is probably proving difficult for garden centres to sell plants online. Fewer and fewer are plant centres. They are more destination centres so if plants are only 15-20% of turnover it's quite difficult to devote an awful lot of resource to an online plant offer because you don't have the resource. We're known for our plants and less known for our products, but garden centres are 30-40% or more food and then there's the ferts and chems and the franchises. We don't have that problem."

Garden retail expert Andy Newman of retail consultancy mdj2 is a former-owner of The Walled Garden Centre at Dorney - now Dorney Court Kitchen Garden - the site acquired by Crocus has for its first bricks-and-mortar retail centre. "It's fascinating to see Crocus step into the garden centre arena and follows a trend being seen across retail where some online-only operators are choosing to develop a physical presence too," he says.

"Knowing the Dorney centre as I do, it's a very traditional plant centre set in a beautiful Victorian walled garden and will give Crocus a great setting to really showcase their credibility and range. Their choice of location near Windsor may also be partly due to its close proximity to the lucrative west London area, where garden centre competition is limited. It also gives them a showcase location to increase their PR and media coverage."

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