Garden centre profile - Carr Farm Garden Centre

Following a major revamp, Carr Farm in the Wirral hopes to reach £10m turnover within three years, says Matthew Appleby.

Carr Farm Garden Centre - image: HW
Carr Farm Garden Centre - image: HW

The Carr Farm site has been owned by the Jones family since the 1930s. Originally run as a small dairy farm, it expanded to include a farm shop and a small garden nursery. Carr Farm Garden Centre was established in 1982. At that time the dairy operation ceased and the family concentrated on the farm shop and garden centre.

Over the past three years the garden centre has developed dramatically and the old farmyard buildings have been transformed into a craft courtyard. The family of founder Joe Jones, who died in 2003, continues to run the site, with grand-daughter Cath and grandson Ben joining full-time in 2006 and 2008 respectively. More recently, grandson Tomas has started on a part-time basis.

In 2011 planning began for a revamp of the garden centre. Building work began in March 2014 with the first phase completed by February 2015. Further refurbishment to retail areas is planned, along with features such as a wild flower meadow, which will include beehives to encourage the production of Carr Farm honey, the creation of a pond and a wildlife area with a bird hide for public use. The centre has a biomass boiler.

The redevelopment of the Wirral centre was designed by Malcolm Scott Consultants and built by Hodges. Malcolm Scott Consultants gained planning approval for the redevelopment in the green belt. Director Malcolm Scott says: "It is a friendly, well-established centre with a strong local customer base. It has great potential to increase its turnover and the first phase includes a new restaurant and frontage."

Managing director Dave Jones adds: "We did phase one last year and have three or four more phases planned. We were originally a farm and have grown over the years into a nursery, then a garden centre. We’re a typical garden centre really but we have grown now with concessions, restaurant, courtyard and the list goes on and on, so we’re a destination now. There’s a lot to see."

Jones tells us more about the garden centre and his plans for future development:

Why did you redevelop the site?

I’ve got quite a large family — on my side and Sue’s, my sister. I have two children and she has one, and all three are around 20 years old and are going to be having their families so rather than look for a second site to keep everyone happy we decided to develop the site to its potential.

What are your plans for the site?

We have plans for a food hall, for the retail area of the garden centre itself, for a wild flower meadow and this autumn there’s an animal petting zoo opening.

What was your inspiration for the changes?

Malcolm Scott based it on a centre down south that opened three years ago but to be honest it was a combination of our design and our vision for what we wanted to become. We wanted to become slightly different to another destination centre — half garden centre and half other shops. If you go to some garden centres, the garden centre is pushed into the corner and almost the second thing you see. We wanted the garden centre to be the first thing and first priority.

What is your view on garden centres and concessions?

It took 10 years to get planning permission. If we’d tried to finance the whole thing ourselves instead of taking three or four years to develop, it might have taken 10 years more, and I think that would have been too slow. The turnover of the site 12 months ago was £2.4m and is now moving towards £5m. In the next three years we hope to move towards £10m, split 50/50 between garden centre and concessions. We are trading beyond our targets. The garden centre is up 65 per cent over the past three months year-on-year and the garden centre is the party that has not had anything done to it yet. We’ve been getting the footfall from the concessions and a new restaurant, so when we redevelop the garden centre we will see the results from that as well.

What’s next for the garden centre?

Now we have the restaurant, gift area and concessions, we don’t get the dead days that we used to get as a nursery garden centre. Next, apart from increasing the quality of the stock and choice to the customer, is a new plant canopy to increase all-weather sales. I don’t want to become a place that’s not about gardening. For instance, we offer 70 pallets of compost in a whole room and want to keep that. We’ve also got an area to be built out the back for the hardware side that’s not scheduled yet.

How did you persuade planning to pass your plans?

Pressure of our evidence from Malcolm Scott Consultants. We spent 18 months putting the plan together with Malcolm Scott. We first contacted them in 2003 but then there was the downturn so we wouldn’t have got finance. Wirral Borough Council actually granted us greater than we asked for so we gave them some back to create goodwill.

Job creation was vital — we got a grant for it of £195,000 from the EU. We have more than 30 staff now and there are 110 on site and could be 200 when we’re finished. At the moment everything is above target. The locals are 100 per cent behind us and what we’re doing is well-demanded in this area.

Our intention is to develop the market. There’s lots of parts of the garden centre market that we believe are untapped. We’d rather take trade from B&Q and Homebase and online retailers than other garden centres. People say they’re cheaper but we’re competitive. We’re launching an online shop at the end of October. We have one that does £50,000 a year at the moment on furniture and Christmas, but this will be a proper online store. I’ve employed Lee Elwell, who was at Cotton Traders, to do it.

In the future there will be local nurseries run by families and the  big guys. As long as we are one of the big guys that do it like a family would do it, with the personal touch, that’s important.

How did you get the concession on board?

We used the restaurant. We don’t make a profit on it — it’s the quality that’s important, not just the building but the food and environment. There are 30 staff in there — it’s a concession — and we charge under the market value so they can create that and everyone else builds off that footfall. We have a queue of concessions waiting to come in.

We don’t employ part-time staff. We’ve got a six-year plan to pay staff £9.20 an hour by 2020 for entry-level employees as part of their contract. We put that together before the National Living Wage announcement because it is going to become more difficult to employ good staff.

We want happy staff and not people who come in and do the job and then go home. If they enjoy the job, hopefully they can earn us more money. The industry argument is that you can’t give the level of customer service you used to because it is so expensive, but you like to achieve as much as you can. You’ve got to give at least a good impression of customer service. You do your best.

We would never join a buying group. We can achieve better than they can. We do our utmost to take everything, even in a bad season, because when the good times happen and you need extra, the supplier says: "Yes, get it to them."

Carr Farm Garden Centre: facts and figures

Owners Dave Jones and family — sister Sue Armstrong, wife Karen Jones, Cath Armstrong (Sue’s daughter), Ben Jones and Tomas Jones (both Dave Jones’ children).
Turnover 2014 £2.5m (site) 2015 c£5m (site) 2018 c£10m (site — forecast).
Size 3ha
Car park 302 spaces
Restaurant covers 250
Total retail area 12,200sq ft
Households within a 20-minute drive 33,000
Concessions Maidenhead Aquatics, Brantano, Klass, Cotton Traders, garden centre restaurant, car wash, craft units and baby wear.
Nearest competition Gordale, Burleydam, Port Sunlight.
Main suppliers Gardman, Decco, Hartman, Leisuregrow, Premier, Kaemingk, Farplants, Quality Ornamentals, Westland/Sinclair, Walkers (Chester) — bedding.

Expert view

Chris Primett Consultant planner, Malcolm Scott Consultants

"Carr Farm is a family-run business that is long-established on the north Wirral peninsula. Two years ago they decided the business needed to take a new direction and raise its profile so decided to invest in a new restaurant and shop and generally upgrade the garden centre. As a result of the work, the garden centre has proved very attractive to concessions. The evolution has been tremendously successful. It shows a family business can create its own individual style that makes them stand out from other garden centres and retail outlets. Carr Farm has raised the bar in terms of retail design quality and has plans for further expansion, with a planning application going in this October. The business is growing and developing."

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