Garden centre profile: Frensham Garden Centre, Surrey

Frensham owner David Wheelhouse aims to get the centre into the Garden Retail Top 100 through its extensive improvement programme, Matthew Appleby reports.

Frensham: expanded planteria refurbished with new benches from Woodlodge - image: HW
Frensham: expanded planteria refurbished with new benches from Woodlodge - image: HW

Frensham Garden Centre in the Surrey Hills relaunched last month after a £900,000 refurbishment. Owner David Wheelhouse has increased its retail areas by nearly 50 per cent and had extensive work done on the car park, entrance, camping shop, buildings and back-office functions.

Wheelhouse’s stated intention is to be included within the top 100 garden centres in the country in turnover terms by the end of 2017 (the Garden Retail Top 100 is published by HW each summer). The next major phase for the garden centre will be a new 175-cover restaurant overlooking the surrounding parkland. Malcolm Scott Consultants is handling design and planning.

Wheelhouse used to own and run discount general goods retailer The Wheelhouse in Hounslow, west London, that operated from 1955 to 2009. But he came to the opinion that the high street was doomed so bought Frensham in 2006. HW met up with him to find out more:

How have you developed the garden centre?

The site is 10 acres and I bought it from owner Robert Tyler via Quinton Edwards in 2006. We opened a farm shop five years ago and this winter we have completely refurbished the camping department with £300,000 of new stock, refurbished the plant department with new benches from Woodlodge, we have a new £60,000 entrance and we’ve resurfaced the car park, which was the biggest contract. Malcolm Scotts said we need 250 spaces to turnover £5m at £20,000 each.

We’ve landscaped the grounds and spent £900,000 with a business loan. Contractors include local company Aldreds for the car park. Malcolm Scott is now handling design and development of the business going forward. We have no new buildings, just refurbishments.

We’ve spent £43,000 on electronic point of sale from Premier and we’ve expanded the planteria. We see plants and horticulture as absolutely critical. I see a lot of garden centres taking the emphasis off horticulture and keeping it at the back. We believe that’s wrong.

There’s also good margin in plants. In the farm shop it’s tight and on barbecues and furniture it’s very competitive.

The roof, heating, flooring and racking is all new. It will be nice to come into work when it’s not a building site. We’ve spent £10,000 on the website [] as well as £20,000 on radio ads, Facebook and YouTube for the relaunch. Work started in October 2015. Myself and the team are completely worn out from 18-hour days. What we want to be is the best. We don’t want to be the biggest.

What are your plans?

Our intention for some two years down the line is to have a 175-200-seater restaurant at the back of the site. At the moment we just have a coffee shop with 80 seats, which is too small.

Our intention is to turnover £4.5m by 2017. That would put us in the top 100, which is where we want to be, and once we’ve finished the restaurant, turnover will be £5.5m. Like most garden centre operators, the restaurant is a critical part of the business.

Where did you find the inspiration for the refurbishment?

Ideas come from within. We go and visit other garden centres and when we drive past pop in and have a look — we all do.

What is your background?

I’ve always been in retail since I was 16. We used to run Wheelhouse in Hounslow for 30-odd years, but 10 years ago I identified that traditional high street shops had not a long shelf life so we bought Frensham, which had an £850,000 turnover. This year turnover will be £3.5m-£4m and next year £4.5m. Wheelhouse was a discount store, selling bankrupt and job lots.

What are the challenges moving into a more specialist area?

We had a good horticulture team to build on the changes going from running a discounter to a very different client base of As and Bs. Waverley Borough Council area has the most millionaires in the country, whereas Hounslow is a tough area.

We’ve changed the type of product bought and sold for the very different types of customer, but we always keep the emphasis on horticulture. But it is a very seasonal business so we moved into non-traditional goods, though these days they’re seen as quite traditional — giftware and pet products.

What changes are you seeing now in what you stock?

We’ve been expanding the leisure, barbecue and garden furniture offer. There’s a challenge from the internet but we have to meet that. We’re expanding giftware and cards. This year we’ll be very big on Christmas. We bought a grotto and we’ll have a 6,000sq ft Christmas department.

How important are prices?

On certain products such as barbecues and garden furniture they are widely available on the net so are much more price-sensitive. If people are spending £1,500-£3,000 they are going to look at the net. On other items price is not so critical but is getting more so.

How do you differentiate yourselves from online sellers?

We try and score on service. We have our own van and will deliver, install and clear rubbish away. There’s so much more to a traditional retail offer the net doesn’t offer.

What concessions do you have?

We had a camping concession and have taken over after the surrender of the lease and decided to take it in-house, and are looking at a better-quality offer with more products. We have butcher, conservatory, shed, lawnmower and machinery and soft furnishings concessions — all add-ons to the garden centre to broaden the appeal. They are specialisms we can’t specialise in ourselves.

What are your ambitions?

We want to be in the top 100 not just for turnover but for quality. We’re never going to be Longacres’ or Bents’ size but we see ourselves in the middle of the top 100. The groups are buying the little guys out but we’re family-owned and can compete against the big guys through variety and service. We only have one site to think about, not 30-40 or 180. We know this site and this customer better than a multiple can.

Our buying patterns are not just one-size-fits-all but just for Frensham. The big boys do have massive buying power, which is difficult to compete with, but we do and our suppliers are fantastic.

I’d like a big adventure playground with a zip wire, but the budget won’t stretch this year. We had a business loan to do this. I’m not short of plans. I’d like a new restaurant, gelateria, confectionery shop.

Who are your department heads?

We don’t have departments here. There’s myself and general managers/buyers. The people who sell it are the people who buy it. They know what the customers want better, so buying is delegated.

How do you compete against other garden centres?

This is one of the most competitive areas in the country. Our points of difference are service, quality and location. We’re in a very attractive site on 10 acres in the Surrey Hills. We get a lot of walkers and cyclists so we’re not just a garden centre but a leisure destination slightly off the beaten track. People like having to drive out — it’s picturesque.

A lot of garden centres are going down the road of massive steel buildings that look like B&Q. We still look like a garden centre and family business — we walk around the shop all day.

How do you keep waste down in the farm shop?

Just by having a very good team, and we watch it because we’re a small business and our wastage is minimal. But we would rather have waste than sell poor-quality products. We sell a lot of cookware through the farm shop — the margin is better.

Why did you buy Frensham?

I wanted a freehold site, which we have always had. I realised the high street was finished with crime and people shopping out of town, but I wanted to stay in retail. I didn’t want a big B&Q-type site and this came up. I instantly decided I wanted it when I visited.

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