Owner Chris Bonnett has acquired the former Tomlins Garden Centre site near the M25 in Brentwood, Essex, with an initial £1.2m investment. He hopes to reach a turnover of £2m in year one and £8m when the site is fully developed.
To date, Bonnett has traded exclusively online. He says the purchase is a natural progression into a bricks-and-mortar offering which should allow him to bring the strategy that has worked online into the garden centre sector.
"We have a lot of interesting ideas to bring in that just aren’t being done by any other garden centre or chain," he adds. "We are starting as we mean to go on. The new business will be structured in such a way that once the model we plan to implement has been proven, we will be able to roll it out to other stores."
Bonnett says the bricks-and-mortar centre integrates different ways of buying and "gives us more options, potentially click-and-collect, and more products — and consumers can see all the products".
Despite the ubiquity of online shopping in areas such as fashion, he says there is "nothing like seeing, feeling and understanding the quality of what you're buying".
With some garden centre suppliers such as fruit tree grower Blackmoor Nurseries looking to sell online only, being able to get full value for garden centre quality plants is an issue too.
Online garden retailer Crocus bought the Walled Garden Centre at Dorney recently, while established garden centre chains such as Dobbies (with Ocado as delivery partner) and Wyevale have got into online in a big way this year. Crocus's fellow RHS Chelsea Flower Show plant supplier Hortus Loci has also recently opened a retail plant centre.
Online pricing is now "so competitive" there is the challenge for online sellers to let customers understand that they have a bigger or better rhododendron than the competition, unless they see it in the flesh.
Bonnett says the online market is "buoyant" and he has seen 300 per cent growth this year at Gardening Express, which has moved from being "a small concern to a fully-fledged wing of the UK's horticultural gardening army" over the past decade from its 5.6ha Chelmsford nursery, 15 miles from the Brentwood centre.
He says for Dobbies and Wyevale, moving to exploit the online market is "the right move" and Dobbies' partnership with the established Ocado "gives them the knowledge to make it work". But he warns of "growing pains" and high standards expected from buyers.
"Years ago you had 'Tescopoly' and now its 'Amazonopoly'. People's expectations when ordering online are for delivery in an hour or the goods to be there the next day, which is more difficult when you're picking a plant from a 14-acre nursery."
Bonnett suggests that wastage seen at big chains such as Wyevale this year could be because of keen online pricing by the likes of himself. He has £14.99 hydrangeas while others might have them at £26 and still at £16 when reduced. "Our standard price is already lower than theirs."
It is "par for the course" for people comparing plant prices on their iPhones on higher-value, considered purchase items such as Buxus, if not on impulse buys. Changing to offering what plants and colours customers are demanding online and stocking it online and in-store with customer feedback feeding into the offer is the way forward.
Rebranded cottage garden favourite Dianthus 'Pink Kisses' and the exclusive Clematis Taiga, which has sold 15,000, have done well this year, as have usual suspects Buxus, acers and shrubs generally.
The Bonnetts Garden Village site opened its doors for plants and compost in June and quickly attracted more than 700 likes on Facebook. The 40-year-old business site had been closed for nearly two years. Now there is a new 15,000sq ft Newspan building and Bonnett plans to replace the old glasshouses with further retail space of a similar size and a 200- to 300-seater restaurant.
The Walled Garden Centre at Dorney was formerly a Blooms of Bressingham Centre before having other owners in recent years. Crocus plans a garden school at the centre as well as developing the site as a plant centre, but has yet to start work since buying the centre in February.
Bonnett plans click-and-collect and Crocus has thoughts around that too. Nicholas Marshall launched click-and-collect at Wyevale Garden Centres and now that he is at Dobbies will no doubt want to revive that way of selling.
Crocus director Peter Clay says garden centres sell fewer plants now so will find it more difficult to offer the range of plants online that people want. Andy Newman of retail consultancy mdj2, a former-owner of the Walled Garden Centre at Dorney, says the centre gives Crocus a great setting to showcase its credibility and range as well as increasing PR and media coverage.