Centred around plants

An innovative garden centre in the Channel Islands challenges orthodox design, says Gavin McEwan.

Blue Diamond managing director Alan Roper with his plans for an Octagonal planteria in the Channel Islands - photo: HW
Blue Diamond managing director Alan Roper with his plans for an Octagonal planteria in the Channel Islands - photo: HW

The idea seems so compelling that one wonders why no one thought of it before. But someone did. Blue Diamond managing director Alan Roper has been pursuing his vision of a planteria "in the round" for 15 years, but only now is it taking shape at the company's site in Le Friquet, Guernsey.

Before joining Blue Diamond 10 years ago, Roper had sought to build something similar at Nailsworth in the Chilterns, but conditions dictated a more amphitheatre-like structure instead.

He later put his idea to Guernsey-based investment firm Blue Diamond, with a view to putting it into practice on the island. Formerly a more diverse company, with interests from financial IT to sports stores, the firm now mainly focuses on garden centres, of which it now has nine.

"The problem was that there was no law to allow a garden centre in a rural location," Roper says. "It took the States (of Guernsey - the island's legislature) several years to draft a new rural retail policy, which recognised garden centres in law."

This finally enabled an application to be submitted last year. "They liked the footprint," says Roper. "It's not just another box, and it can't be used for much else."

Blue Diamond has already opened innovative retail outlets at Evesham and at Trentham, Stoke-on-Trent. But this is the first occasion when the company has conceived and managed construction of a new centre itself.

"The experience in the Cotswolds gave me confidence to do it on my own," Roper says. "If you look at some design consultants, there's a lot of similarity in their designs from one garden centre to another. Now, with a blank canvas, we have an opportunity to create something unique."

As main contractor on the project, Blue Diamond is responsible for the 12 teams of sub-contractors on site. "It gives you more control and saves you money," Roper says.

Blue Diamond commissioned local architect Michael Nicolle to firm up the design for the 5,000sq m centre. "You need a recipe so the people doing the flooring, cladding and roofing have something to work off," Roper adds.

The new design takes the form of a 15m-wide octagon, separated by glass-panelled walls and doors from a courtyard inside, containing the plant displays. The design ensures the customer sees straight through to the courtyard and beyond even before setting foot inside the garden centre.

"A big part of the concept is to expose customers to all the product," Roper says. "It's difficult to get the customer flow right in a big box - people miss bits. I wanted to bring the balance back."

As well as being more visible, plants will benefit from a microclimate in which they are protected from the wind, he adds. "We have a policy of displaying colour 365 days of the year. A planteria usually gets worse the further back you go. Here, there is no back."

The central area will be covered by a canopy, while external cladding will be of pink granite and cedarwood.

A further innovation is that the new centre will be entirely self-sufficient in heating and hot water, thanks to a grid of 70 boreholes, each 700m deep, in a neighbouring field, from which water at 10 degsC is pumped up. While this costs around 50 per cent more than conventional heating, Roper anticipates it will be recouped within seven years.

He continues to manage the project at detailed level. His office is cluttered with samples of everything from light fittings to gutters. "Garden centres can be cold and soulless boxes, when they could be intimate," he says. "We want to get ambience back into the mix. We'll have wooden shelving rather than cream metal. And lighting affects how the store and products look, and how the customer feels. There's no point in having good products if halide lights just bleach them out."

The centre aims to appeal on many levels. The interior includes a pictorial history of Guernsey's commercial horticulture, offering interest to tourists as well as locals, and also features a 120-seat lecture theatre for training and visiting gardening groups. Catering is also a significant element.

"Smaller garden centres can make money without indoor living, but they all need refreshments," says Roper. "I wanted a garden centre not to be tilted away from its core elements. You can be seen to be strong in both, but you have to be good at everything for it to work effectively."

Hence a 270-seat restaurant with seating for a further 100 outside - "a destination in itself", as Roper describes it, in the manner of Blue Diamond's Trentham Gardens store. "It will bring in a demographic who don't use the current centre."

As with Trentham, it will offer a waitress-service Italian restaurant, a self-service deli/patisserie and a coffee bar adjacent to the children's play area. A further outdoor play zone will lie within the courtyard.

"We're fine with the grey pound, but they are a given," says Roper. "The real money is in the middle- to upmarket young families. Young mothers are the only people with cash to spend from Monday to Friday. Guernsey's great in the evening, but in the daytime the choice is small."

Attracting these customers means a play area, CBeebies, clothing and tubs of instant colour "so they don't have to think too hard about doing it themselves", he explains.

A substantial increase on the company's existing store, the multi-million-pound development will lead to a fourfold increase in staff, to around 80. A new company head office will sit alongside.

"It's not easy to recruit here," says Roper. "We would struggle to run our Jersey store without Eastern Europeans."

Roper puts the cost of building the centre in Guernsey at 30 per cent higher than on the mainland, due to generally higher prices and the need to bring over parts and labour. "Getting on and off the island is expensive," he says. "A garden centre of the size of our current site would only turn over about £1m a year on the mainland. Here, it's £2.7m. That illustrates the demand for a facility like that here. There are 60,000 people here with few leisure destinations to go to, particularly for families."

The project is scheduled for completion in July 2009, but opening may be postponed until September - giving a clear run-up to Christmas - or even until early spring 2010. "There's no rush - I'd rather get it done right," says Roper.

With a £33m turnover, the company achieved like-for-like growth of 10 per cent last year, which compares favourably with Dobbies' three per cent and Wyevale's 1.4 per cent - though Roper admits such growth is unlikely to continue in the current year.

"Part of the difference is to constantly change the indoor living and sundries," he says. "I've dropped (a well-known sundries supplier) - I was always tripping over its lines elsewhere. We have to offer more than the same wellies and hanging baskets."

A popular plant supplier has also been dropped. "Its branding is everywhere," Roper says. "We want to offer good-quality products grown locally - it's a point of difference, and gives each centre flexibility."

However, the new store will still make room for what Roper calls "design classics - things like Nutscene garden twine, which could have been there in the 1930s". This approach is particularly important during the downturn, he believes. "People will still spend, but you have to give them a reason."

Such is the company's belief in the new centre's format that it already plans to develop two more, including one in an old square walled garden at its site at Wilton House, Wiltshire. Bold moves indeed, given the current woes on the high street. "It's not the ideal time," Roper concedes. "But if you can alter your strategy to deal with short-term economic woes then you might as well not have a plan at all."

He believes garden retail is better placed to weather the storm than other sectors. "In the 1990s I didn't notice the downturn," he says, adding that the main worry continues to be the weather.

"We are taking quite a gamble," he admits. "But I have been around long enough to know it'll work."

HAYES GARDEN WORLD

While Blue Diamond erects its new-format garden centre on Guernsey, a similar development is afoot in the Lake District, where Hayes Garden World will begin construction of a round garden centre at its Ambleside site in January.

Designer Malcolm Scott says: "It places plants right back in the centre of the garden centre and creates an ideal location adjacent for all the bulky hard goods necessary to create a modern garden."

A quarter of the circular planteria will be glassed in, accommodating year-round displays of bedding plants. It also puts an emphasis on sustainability, with sustainable drainage and water harvesting.


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