Be brave and bold say successful independent garden centres

Be bold was the message from those at the helm of three independent garden centres who have seen their businesses boom after being brave and investing big in new buildings.

HW Garden Retail Summit 2017: Tim Mason, James Debbage and Mark Farnsworth
HW Garden Retail Summit 2017: Tim Mason, James Debbage and Mark Farnsworth

Despite operating cheek-by-jowl with bigger competitors, James Debbage of Green Pastures Garden Centre and Farmshop in Norwich, Norfolk and his wife decided to invest in a 650sqm timber building to protect them from the elements and to improve their offering.

"We’ve always used our small size and independence to our advantage. We’ve got some big boys near us, we need to be different," he said. Their response was to bring production and ornamental horticulture together to offer something more traditional garden centres do not, selling freshly made food from home-grown produce, such as their signature 40-ingredient salads pulled from the ground just steps away from the kitchen, hours before sale.

They capitalised on their small community by using 50% local labour on the build, spread the word with customers and on social media and created so much of a buzz about the centre’s new 100-seat five-chef Gardener’s Kitchen restaurant that people were waiting for the doors to open, he said. The restaurant won the Catering Excellence award in the Garden Retail Awards 2017.

The new space also allowed them to sign up as a Post Office Local site which services 100 customers a day.

For more highlights from the Garden Retail Summit, click here.

Investment in Mappleborough Green in Studley, Warwickshire was also "a leap of faith", according to project manager Tim Mason. When the site was acquired it had been doing "a reasonable turnover from quite primitive buildings" The company put in a newbuild steel frame metal structure disguised by a wrap around oak frontage. Because it was designed from scratch, every seat in the coffee shop has a view of the plantarea, encouraging clients to buy more plants outside and non-horticultural products inside.

Since the new centre opened last summer, Mason said: "We’ve seen a massive increase in the sale of giftware, a lot of that is off the back of the coffee shop – it’s weatherproofing."

The building also has concession space for retail variety and regular income, a pet centre, which Mappleborough is currently running itself, and play areas for children.

Debbage’s ambition to create the best garden centre restaurant in Norfolk paid off when he won the best restaurant overall prize in the EDP Norfolk Food & Drink Awards.

But he recommends you cannot be ambitious enough

"We’re full all the time - we built our restaurant too small. We’re seeking planning permission to enlarge the farm shop but it’s going to be hard to relocate while we build."

Mason also said he would look for a bigger site if he built another centre. "At the time you feel like you’re being really bold. Think what you can do, double it and then see if it’s achievable.

Owner of Garden Retail Awards 2017 Best Customer Experience winner Tong Garden Centre in Bradford, Yorkshire, Mark Farnsworth said his site had been turning over £7 million in 2001 but that had dropped to £3m on acquisition because the centre "suffered from a lack of TLC". "There was more than 160 different types of composts, branding was all over the place, there was a muddy car park. It was crying out for some love and attention," he said.

He grew staff from 45 to 140 in order to raise retail standards and built a 320-seat restaurant, food hall and new plantarea. He also invested in a website and, partly because he and his partner Tom have five children under eight between them, spent £60,000 on an extensive outdoor play area which they charge £3.50 entry per child, as well as making money with an adjacent burger van. 

"It was the first proper thing that we opened, on the first day of the school holidays. On the third day it was sunny and it just went bezerk. We put a video on Facebook of kids playing. The next morning at 9am we had a queue of people wanting to come in. We’re trying to be a destination centre for all the family. For us I think we’re almost more leisure than retail now."

He said staff were happy to have new owners willing to invest and helped the centre’s high ratings on websites like TripAdvisor by embedding the "culture of customer first". "They could have holidays when they actually wanted holidays.

"We’re riding the crest of a wave. I think the challenge is to take that one even further. We’re looking at staff benefits and training."

The panel said planners and highways officers could be difficult which is why they advise building big to start with. They are all planning extensions to their properties.

Debbage said it was important to "have the confidence to really do your research, take a calculated risk and do something bold". Involving customers in what you are doing is also important, he said.

Owner of Ansell Garden Centre, near Heathrow Paresh Raithatha who lost all his stock and 100 per cent of his building in a fire last November also spoke from the audience about his rebuild strategy.

The centre sold 1,000 Christmas trees from a portakabin last year. The formal rebuild will take until March 2018, with a Christmas shop hopefully open for business later this year.

"Our strategy will still be very plant focused. We did have a coffee shop. It wasn’t very big but it was always packed out."

He said focusing on engraining friendly, not pushy, politeness in his staff paid off when customers heard the news. "We had 65,000 wellwishers on Facebook, we had 600 mince pies in the office at Christmas. It was absolutely crazy but lovely."

He said that dealing with insurance had been an eye opener, saying that he estimated 70 to 80% of garden centres were not insured properly. Director at chartered surveyors Quinton Edwards Simon Quinton Smith, also speaking from the audience agreed.

"Most small garden centres are under insured," he said. 

For more highlights from the Garden Retail Summit, click here.


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