Concerns over the impact of growing consolidation in the garden retail sector have been raised again following recent sales of high-profile independents to Wyevale Garden Centres - with more expected to follow.
At the start of the month, Huddersfield-based Armitage's Home & Garden's two centres became the latest acquisition of Wyevale. Armitage's was owned by managing director William Armitage who is chairman of the Garden Centre Association (GCA).
Agents say several centres are set to sell at the end of the season, with Wyevale front runner as purchaser. Wyevale has bought 20 over the past two years. It is set to make it 150 this summer.
Independents selling to chains is a "big issue", according to former GCA chairman Guy Topping, with Armitage and two previous GCA chairmen selling up to Wyevale in recent months.
"The problem is they never come back to independents," added Barton Grange managing director Topping. Even if a chain was subsequently to break up "it won't get sold off one by one - it will be in the 30s or 50 or 60. We're losing that experience and the people who have been brought up with it. No one like that will come in."
Garden Industry Manufacturers Association (GIMA) director Vicky Nuttall said consolidation in the industry is a "concern" with suppliers finding it more difficult to access buyers of big groups and that could lead to "a lack of choice and innovation for consumers". GIMA has a buyers connect meeting scheduled with Wyevale on 8 July.
But Fresh@Burcot garden centre director and former GIMA director Neil Gow said: "As an independent operator, if the independent centres around me sold out to the groups, whoopee - they generally reduce turnover but that doesn't mean a reduction in the amount of gardening that goes on."
On the impact on GCA membership, Topping said: "The GCA needs to get out to smaller centres that are not seeing the benefits of membership."
But GCA chief executive Iain Wylie said: "At the moment Wyevale is keeping centres it is acquiring in membership, which we're glad about. It is not unduly significant for the GCA and new members are joining as well." Glendoick and Orchard Park have both joined this year.
Meanwhile, observers suggest Wyevale's pursuit of the 35-centre Tesco-owned Dobbies group seems to be fading, with the news that Dobbies is developing its estate with the addition of Maidenhead Aquatics at Aberdeen and Dundee.
Wyevale previously stated that it is keen to buy Dobbies but has seen all approaches rebuffed over the past two years. Dobbies reiterated that any talk of a sale is "all speculation" and had nothing to add to its earlier statement that it is "business as usual". Wyevale said it would not comment on speculation.
Mdj2 Associates director Andy Newman said: "It's hard to tell with Dobbies as Tesco seemed to imply it was keeping hold of it when it took a large impairment charge a few weeks ago - my assumption was if it was about to sell it would have said so (as it has done with Dunn Hummby). But my suspicion is that Tesco has too many other priorities to deal with, so Dobbies may be a bit of a distraction."
Wyevale is due to announce its 2014 results at the end of this month. At last week's HTA catering conference the company said it is rolling out its restaurant revamp to 18 more sites and wants to franchise it out to other garden centres.
Timeline - Wyevale Garden Centres drawing closer to 150 stores
March 2012 Terra Firma buys 129-store chain The Garden Centre Group
June 2013 Buys Bolton Garden Centre from Barton Grange (130)
September 2013 Buys Cheddar Garden Centre and Lechlade Garden Centre from Park Garden Centres (132)
September 2013 Buys Garden & Leisure group, seven garden centres (139)
March 2014 Buys Brooks Garden Centre (140)
September 2014 Buys Moreton Park Garden Centre (141)
November 2014 Buys Trelawney Ashford from former Garden Centre Association chairman David Danning (142)
November 2014 Buys Raglan from former Garden Centre Association chairman Martin Davies (143)
December 2014 Buys Podington Garden Centre (144)
December 2014 Buys Golden Acres Nurseries, four centres (148)
June 2015 Buys Armitage's from current Garden Centre Association chairman Will Armitage, two centres (149)
June 2015 Acquisition of 150th centre likely to be announced
June 2015 Annual accounts due for 2014.