Mappleborough Green Garden Centre near Redditch in Worcestershire has seen big growth since fully re-opening in June. Tim Mason, formerly of Hillier but now running his own consultancy, Seapop, helped owner Paul Richards to design and build phase two of the former Badger Nurseries.
Sales have soared after reopening the three-acre site, with catering reaching 23 per cent of turnover - at least treble what it was - and it could reach £2m in its first full year. That means catering turnover could soon be greater than the old Badger Nurseries was doing by itself. Richards is seeking more centres within 150 minutes of his Bournemouth base. He hopes to run a five-centre group and will consider rundown and greenfield sites.
"The coffee shop has been the most important thing to drive the centre," he reveals. His philosophy of "build it and they will come" has been borne out by the centre taking off so quickly. There are also play areas and two new concessions, with a third to come.
Richards points out that the key to growth at the centre, which he kept after selling four garden centres from his Golden Acres Group to Wyevale in 2014, is that it had good turnover even without catering, so adding that element would quickly boost footfall and sales.
Golden Acres leased its glasshouses to Dorset Plants in 2014.
In November 2014 the Golden Acres cash and carry was taken over by Richards' daughter, Charlotte Richards. Her company, Plants for Trade, continues to serve cash and carry customers from the same site at West Parley in Dorset.
Wyevale wanted Richards to update the site, but he says: "I wanted to keep the site and complete the redevelopment. I've always been confident the right type of development would work here. I am really pleased with the results and see this as a model for a new garden centre group".
We spoke to Tim Mason to find out more:
What's the story behind the centre's redevelopment?
It was doing a reasonable turnover from quite old buildings. To be at that level without a coffee shop was a sign it could do a lot more as a proper garden centre. Malcolm Scott Consultants got planning permission and Paul kept one side open and built the horticultural side, which has a block pave floor so it doesn't matter if it is watered. It's light and airy with opening vents.
The thought was being in a lot of garden centres now you don't feel you're going into a garden centre - you feel like you're going into a gift shop and you see concessions that don't relate to horticulture. Or you go through the planteria into the centre, but people don't like doing that in January or February. So here you come through the horticulture retail part of the business and you really feel you're in a garden centre.Then we put in phase two, which is a different retail environment.
When did you get involved?
I came in January 2016, when the old building was still there, to project manage phase two and had the opportunity to add ideas and put together layout and merchandising. Half stayed open as the other half was built. The first two years of sales were disappointing as phase one didn't make any difference to trade because it was still only half a garden centre. When a decent catering facility came in, it transformed the garden centre.
The planteria was mainly done but not seeing the growth. At the beginning of this year there were bills to pay and money being spent. That was a leap of faith - is it worth fitting out the restaurant with expensive counters and £5,000 combi ovens? But as soon as we opened on 13 June, it was busy.
How did you set out the centre?
With the customer flow you are not forced to go through the planteria but it's so prominent that it should be easy to get people to go there. If they choose to go to the coffee shop, they're looking at the planteria out of the window.
How big will the centre become?
In the next 12 months, I'd be surprised if we're not well over £2m (from £0.5m) judging by sales in the first few weeks after fully opening.
Where do your ideas come from?
I've come from Hillier, which is an obvious blueprint. Paul has 30 years in growing and garden centres, so keeping the horticultural plant offer has to be a core value. But you would struggle without coffee shops and giftware.
If you build something you hope it will last for a long time. I was always impressed by Haskins Ferndown. It was built in the 1980s but is still in the same building, so they have got good value.
My ideas come from Hillier, Haskins, Notcutts, Wyevale, independents and you put your own spin on it and hopefully become something a bit different. We still do A-Z plants while most people merchandise by colour and soil type etc, but the whole covered area is intended for that so should still get impulse sales.
We've added an outdoor play area in the last couple of months plus a play area inside, which is just enough to give parents and grandparents a break. We've been surprised how many younger people we've seen coming in since adding the coffee shop and planteria.
We put compost out the back under cover. I've noticed most people put it at the front now. There could be more sales but we want maximum kerb appeal to look upmarket and give a positive impression. Many retail businesses and garden centres are judged now by their catering quality more than the quality of their plants. Loos are another thing you are judged on.
It's a big investment and you need to include more categories so we increased giftware and food. Food is growing a lot in garden centres. We didn't feel confident enough for a farm shop but felt the fine food section was selling well, particularly cakes and meringues, and now we're thinking of getting a licence to sell alcohol.
Like a lot of retailers, we have slightly less formulaic gondola units and are starting to use headings, such as "For Him". Sometimes in independents there is fantastic merchandising, but if you're creating a group you don't necessarily have the continuity of people.
What is the expansion plan?
It's a question of finding appropriate sites. Paul enjoys the building process and is happy to look at brownfield sites and take them to the next level, or undeveloped sites or existing garden centres.
What has your role been?
I've been virtually full-time here since January. I managed the whole project. We had no building contractor or management company to run it. I learnt how to specify a concrete floor, for instance. My company, Seapop, is there to give management advice to retailers, realistically garden centres, because that's my knowledge base.
At Hillier I managed 65 concessions as well as building projects and marketing. That background might be helpful to a garden centre trying to go to the next level. They might have the ability but not the time. There's a need for a lot of garden centres to change to keep up with retail standards.
What do you see as the big areas for growth?
Giftware and food has done better than expected. An alcohol licence should give us an extra 10 per cent on food sales. Concessions have been very happy. We have Klass and Brantano, and another one is due to follow.
It's only a three acre site, which is pretty small for the business we're achieving here and aiming to achieve. Parking could become an issue because there's only 130 spaces, though we can park staff round the back.
What about your neighbouring garden centres?
Castle Nurseries is nearby beyond (Hillview's) Studley Garden Centre. Castle has a fantastic reputation at the value end of the market. It has a market feel, with plants sold off Danish trolleys. Studley is a very nice traditional garden centre. It was one of my projects at Hillier 15-20 years ago. There may be benefit in having more garden centres together. There's a very large population in the area, more than enough to cope with three centres.
We're only a three acre site so we were never going to big enough take all the business in the area. Hillier bought Studley thinking it would be good to extend the reach, but over the years found it awkward to manage. It felt a little bit too far to go and Hillier was approached and asked if it wanted to sell, and decided it was better to sell. It became the first from Hillview. They have 10 now.
What are the plans for the future?
The group desire is to reach five good-quality garden centres so one person can manage them all and you don't need area managers. You would be big enough to have buying advantages. The time frame, if we got two or three together, could be very quick. The criteria are within two-and-a-half hours from Bournemouth, size, ability to get planning permission and the area's population. But we're willing to take something that's not necessarily even a garden centre.
Owner Paul Richards
Manager James White
Consultant Tim Mason (Seapop)
Gardener's Kitchen 150 covers inside
Current turnover £500,000
Projected turnover £2m
Concessions Klass, Brantano
Local competition Castle Nurseries, Studley Garden Centre