Longacres bought Bybrook Barn in Ashford, Kent, in July 2016 and has transformed the centre since then, with more developments still to come. Terry Burch set up the centre in 1975, moving to the current site in 1989. Dobbies built a new store nearby in 2010.
Ashford is one of three Longacres centres, along with the UK's highest turnover centre, at more than £20m a year, at Bagshot in Surrey and Shepperton, opened in 2014. The Long family runs the business.
Horticulture Week finds out more from IT manager Michael Ainley:
What is the background to buying the centre?
We started looking in early 2016, made first visits in March 2016, completed on 31 July 2016 and opened as Longacres. Nigel Long was keen on hitting the ground running so we closed at 5.30pm as Bybrook Barn and opened at 8.30am the next day as Longacres. One of the hardest things was doing all the improvements while remaining open. Shepperton was vacant when we took over, which made us realise how easy that was opposed to the centre being open.
What improvements have you made?
Flooring was a big one. It was block paved with carpet tiles and we've replaced that. There was virtually no stock when we took over and customers were frustrated by that. Everything from sundries to plants was low. We demolished stone fixed plant beds, modernised the restaurant, replaced a lot of the heating, cooling and networking - all the physical side. There were a lot of late nights and overnights. From the customer point of view, there is a new product selection. Because Longacres is so established, Nigel knows what sells.
Like Shepperton, this is smaller than Bagshot so we brought over best-selling lines from Bagshot, rather than having as many lines. We'd have the top three here. The plant range was poor, which was a shame because the buyer is very good. We have access to our suppliers from Bagshot so they are coming down here delivering, for instance Sandiacre with bedding.
The thing that is most gratifying is the feedback. This area is full of gardeners who are happy to see a big range of plants. We've seen the demographics change here since we took over. We now have mums with children in the restaurant.
To improve safety, we've also re-fenced the lake, which has koi carp, terrapins and ducks, built soundproof fencing next to the M20 side of the centre and fenced the rest too. There are new plant benches from Mike Hills, we've block paved 80 per cent outside including wasteland at the far end of the site and networked cabling underground to future-proof the site. We've put in Fordingbrdge canopies to put plants under cover and made better use of the planteria space.
We've installed CCTV and a new tagging system, from Checkpoint. We also have a customer counter at the entrance and exit. It's a metric we've used at Bagshot for 12 years and put in as soon as we opened at Shepperton and Ashford. Footfall was three figures a day when we took over and now it's four figures. We've also re-networked with coloured cables. As an IT manager, being able to identify what's running where makes it 10 times quicker.
What about electronic point of sale?
One of the benefits was they used Davidson Richards, which we have had for years, and that made planning for the new system easy. We didn't move over to Opsuite until October so we were able to pull all the data from the old system before we moved. We were able to compare turnover, which has trebled so far. We'll break £3m this year and we'd expect to be in the HW top 100 in year two or three. It's still the first full year at the moment. We have also added click-and-collect through Opsuite - an overnight job.
How have you communicated the changes?
We have done more advertising than at the other stores, online and in local papers and magazines, with big offers. We've had two opening weekends to get them through the door. Once they are through the door it's easy because of the range and prices, and they tell their friends.
What are the next development plans?
We're bringing the drive-through over from Bagshot, where we've expanded it to five lanes. We have the room to do it here but at Shepperton it's more difficult because of the smaller site. We've moved concessions around, which has given us space in store. The departments that do well at Bagshot had no space here. We moved hot tubs outside and are about to move mobility scooters. That frees space for wild bird care and gifts.
Outside we want to display greenhouses possibly, expand the planteria and move the warehouse and make it bigger. We also plan to build a central staircase to lead straight up the mezzanine floor, which we use for garden furniture, because we only have a lift and two staircases at the end of the building and 80 per cent of customers don't know it's there - it has been there 12 years. It's a big space and will be good for increasing turnover. It's one of the few areas here where it is better than Bagshot.
We may also rebuild the food hall. We will be moving aggregates, paving, fencing and compost, building a new shade house and increasing the planteria by 20-30 per cent. The shrub, specimen and fruit tree area will double.
Floristry is a big area at Bagshot and Shepperton, and it's something we're trying to emulate here. We'll make a push on weddings and regular events like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, and get known as an everyday florist.
How do you beat the Dobbies on your doorstep?
It is close by but we have had to manage close centres at Bagshot for a long period of time. Notcutts has gone from there now. I'd be foolish to say Dobbies is not competition but at the same time customers have been price-sensitive in recent times and all the feedback we get, especially on the plant side, is about quality, price and range. The customers do the price comparisons for us, if you like.
Does Longacres have plans to buy more centres?
Not at the moment.
EXPERT COMMENT - Neville Stein Managing director, Ovation business consultancy
"They have done a good job on the development. Longacres Bybrook Barn has a nice new cafe, which has the usual garden centre fare but the service is excellent.
"There is a decent sized planteria, which has at it's centre a sizeable pond, which creates some nice atmosphere. Merchandising is classic Longacres - functional with plenty of volume offers.
"Overall, you know you are in a Longacres. There is a strong concentration on gardening and a strong emphasis on value."
Turnover - £3m
Projected - To be in Horticulture Week Top 100 Garden Centres within two years.
Size - 4,500sq m Indoor
Staff - 50 Doubled since takeover
Managing director Nigel Long
Manager Paul Bowen
Plant buyer Rachael Thompson
IT manager Michael Ainley
Operations manager Matt Pilkington
Car park - 130 spaces
Restaurant seats - 184 Plus 80 outside
Concessions - American Diner, Bond & Wilkes Bespoke furniture, East Kent Mobility Scooters, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, HotSpring World Hot tubs, Johnsons Garden Buildings, Massarella Restaurant
Builders: Fordingbridge Canopies, NVL Groundworks
Suppliers (include) - Apta, Calor Gas, Gardman, Katie Blake, Kelkay, Leisuregrow, Panacea, Sandiacre, Stewarts, Woodlodge, Weber, Zest.
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