Engagement on summit agenda - Summit tackles how to win new gardening audiences

Garden centres are undergoing a "paradigm shift" to become entertainment centres with soft play, while private equity ownership, consolidation and "scary Latin" were all cited as factors that are making buying gardening products less attractive, the Garden Retail Summit, hosted by Horticulture Week in London earlier this month, (4 February) has heard.

Summit: delegates discussed how to engage new gardening audience while negotiating policy and business changes - image: HW
Summit: delegates discussed how to engage new gardening audience while negotiating policy and business changes - image: HW

Summit delegates discussed how to engage a new gardening audience while negotiating policy and business changes in the industry. Consultant Jane Lawler, formerly of Bayer and Gardman, said a "paradigm shift" is happening as garden centres become "entertainment centres".

She added that garden retailers know their core "elders" audience well. But research shows that the group described by HTA Garden Spender data as "family focus" who love gardens and spending time outdoors, "categorically shy away from the hobby of gardening - it's the thought of dirty fingernails and aching backs plus the bewildering complexity of what grows where and how to look after it. They are much more likely to respond to positive, passive and inspirational communications. Bite-size and visual works best for them."

B&Q horticulture lead buyer Tim Clapp said garden centre customers "walk into a huge army of plants all in Latin, which is very scary". Customers are "intimidated" by garden centre staff because they do not want to look "stupid", he added. He also said a Facebook Q&A with B&Q customers centred on basic task-focused questions such as: "What should I do about a patch on my lawn?"

Hillview Group chief executive Boyd Douglas-Davies said he has brought in a new younger audience at his store in Oxfordshire through ice rinks and a soft play barn. The barn, which has a £2.50 admission fee, has attracted 35,500 customers who have spent £270,000 in its cafe, where 16 slices of chocolate cake can sell before 9.30am and older customers are not pushed out because the cafe is separate to the main catering. The centre is 24 per cent up overall.

Douglas-Davies said new customers' "relaxed state of mind" meant they bought plants too. Clapp said restaurant sales increased 40 per cent while he was at Wyevale when soft play areas went in, but he is not convinced that they increased basket size. Douglas-Davies said: "Our customers love the fact we've changed." He added that customers will know where to buy gardening when they get older, even if they are not interested now.

Clapp said B&Q does have a value offer across well-known products but events are not "B&Q DNA", explaining that quality and value are more important. He said he is "not a great fan of celebrities" and feedback from customers said it is "nice to talk to a real person". The panel was chaired by Neville Stein.

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