Dixon On ... Sales success tied to localism factor

There are smiles all round at the garden centres.

Retail sales were up by 26 per cent by the end of March. And April's hot dry weather and string of extended holiday weekends are godsends.

Nicholas Marshall, chief executive of the Garden Centre Group - previously Wyevale - estimates that bank holiday sales are 10 times that of a normal weekend.

Despite reduced domestic income, families are still spending on the garden. Recessions benefit gardening because people stay home. It's cheap retail therapy with a large feel-good effect.

Garden sundries will benefit the most, accounting for more than 75 per cent of total sales. Booming sales should feed benefits to wholesaling growers. They deserve that because the quality of plants in garden centres this year is exceptionally high.

Estimates suggest that Britain's gardening market is worth £4bn to the economy and growth in excess of five per cent per annum is expected at least to 2014 (Verdict Retail Research). That sort of prediction attracts predators.

Already, fashion retailer Next is opening a trial Home & Garden shop in Shoreham, West Sussex. And Tesco has successfully taken over Dobbies. Other large retailers will now be eyeing up garden centres as new territory ripe for invasion.

Being "local" is an essential ingredient for a successful garden centre. The gardening public likes nothing more than shopping in an apparently working local nursery.

Seeing staff busy pricking-out and potting-on instills confidence in their advice and help. The public will happily pay an extra pound or two for "real nursery" plants. This is something that the big battalions ignore at their peril.

Localisation and reconnecting with primary growers in both ornamentals and fruit and vegetables are developing trends in retail consumers. They might just prove to be the Achilles heel for over-weaning supermarkets.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international.

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