Aylett Nurseries in St Albans was founded by the late Roger Aylett in 1955 as a dahlia specialist. Director Adam Wigglesworth is HTA president for 2016. His wife Julie is managing director of the business.
Aylett still grows 20 per cent of its bedding on-site and holds an annual dahlia festival in September. It is growing 2,500 cyclamen and 4,000 poinsettia for Christmas. The nursery, which has won 42 RHS gold medals for dahlias, also specialises in geraniums and fuchsias.
The 10-acre site has all-weather planteria walkways, with 3.5 acres of retail space. The 600sq m houseplant area is larger than most and the commitment to horticulture means core gardening is at the front of the store. The nursery and demonstration gardens aim to inspire customers to buy plants in the planteria. Aylett bought a 2.5-acre piece of green belt land adjacent to the centre earlier this year.
Adam Wigglesworth says he was satisfied with sales in 2015 in an "extremely competitive retail environment".
So far in 2016 sales are a little behind 2015, with May the peak month by far - as at other garden centres. The company continues to take a "cautious approach" and the National Living Wage is a concern because of the need to maintain differentials between those on higher grades.
What is the future of retail nurseries?
Adam Wigglesworth From our point of view, if you go to the back of the garden centre we have just planted a garden. People want to see what plants look like, not only dahlias but all the other plants. We also see the nursery as being important. Our customers tell us one thing that makes us different is we don't look like centres that have the same format. People like the fact we have a nursery and our team that grows the plants is selling the plants. The nursery is in the planteria. Particularly with bedding, we have the ability to make us different.
Mrs A (Julie) designs our own Aylett's choice cellpack, with bespoke mixes that we've made. We also create our own hanging baskets. We are a plant-based garden centre and we built plant information in the middle of the site because we have key USPs, plant knowledge, integrity and depth of range. We believe in that more than ever.
Julie Aylett We made a conscious decision five years ago to remain a plant centre rather than becoming a gifty garden centre.
AW The wonderful thing about this industry is there are so many options for people to do different formats.
What plants will you be doing more of?
JA More of the things we do well - seasonal plants. For example, we have a house full of three-litre dahlias for that instant colour.
AW Having the nursery does shorten our reaction time and gives us the ability to react quickly to the market. We aim to be as much British-sourced as we can as a business. But we must have the plants for sale on our site and make them competitive and look good. Currency has an impact. The current changes to sterling can only help UK growers.
JA The current situation is one that growers should capitalise on.
AW A number of suppliers are saying they have covered currency requirements for the next three-to-six months so I think we'll see prices relatively stable with people who have covered that currency. At SOLEX people said they could honour prices because they'd covered currency.
JA There's been a big emphasis on price in the last two-to-three years. Our customers are very price conscious and have been during the period of austerity.
AW There is a feeling if you are in an affluent area such as us that price is not an issue, but price is an issue because these are savvy shoppers. They compare on the internet and we have a huge amount of competition, not just from garden centres but Waitrose and Sainsbury's and recently, for example, Hayes of Ambleside's online. As a business we set out our stall as having integrity in core gardening, and people want to be confident they are getting a good deal because customers are smart.
What is your view on consolidation?
AW For growers and suppliers, my perception is it makes life difficult and I think that's a worry. We need a vibrant grower and supplier base who can innovate. From our own independent point of view consolidation is making us more and more a niche player. I'm on the shop floor and customers say to me 'you're different'. Lots of customers travel around lots of centres and what they like is individuality.
How do you differentiate with products?
AW There are still suppliers out there that have products particularly relevant to garden centres like us. Darlac Tools, for example, you don't really find elsewhere. But you still need the big brands like Evergreen at the right price. But we can be more flexible in what we offer.
What areas are growing?
AW We revamped the gift shop. It's a small part of the garden centre but it has done well. The coffee shop has done well even though we have not changed it for a number of years. Houseplants have done phenomenally well. Elho planters in bright colours have done well. The perception is Ayletts customers are over 60 but that product is aimed at youngsters. For me there is a growing realisation of the value of plants and horticulture and grow your own, and the opportunity for us to capitalise on that interest. There's an opportunity to bring gardening within people's households. The days of the 150ft garden in St Albans are gone so people are more in to pots and containers now. It has to give instant gratification whether in flower or flavour.
What plans do you have for development?
AW We've just purchased 2.5 acres adjacent to the garden centre. We've been trying to buy it for 50 years - we used to lease it. There's covenants on it but it's going to give us more space. We've used it as a car park extension and two-acre dahlia field but now it's ours we can invest. It has energised us. This year has been memorable. We had seven acres for 60 years but now we have got another 2.5.