Garden centre managers are increasingly realising that products must be properly positioned, displayed and shown to their best advantage to attract the attention of potential customers. Merchandising is vital.
Dennis Wilmot is managing director of Salepoint, which sells shopfittings to a variety of clients, including garden centres. He says: "If a customer goes into Tesco, they expect to see everything neatly arranged on proper displays. It gives customers confidence that they are dealing with a professional organisation.
"For customers, the presentation and merchandising is an important part of the story."
A few years ago, in the height of the property and DIY boom - when homeowners were splashing out on big-ticket items - many garden centres were investing in grandiose displays, pergolas and walkways. Now they are much more wary about spending their money.
Sales manager of Timber Displays Jo Kemp said garden centres are more likely to buy a few basic items. "It comes down to cost. Instead of having large bespoke units, centres will buy a few benches and stands with a half-octagonal unit at the end of a run."
She said the cheap units are very practical. In the past, centres might have invested in movable displays, but in practice these were rarely shifted. Centres often asked for coloured displays; and while they looked impressive initially, they soon began to fade and look dowdy.
Kemp says: "These days less is more. Displays are probably best when they are simple and uncluttered."
The firm's website reflects this concern about price. Unlike many websites, all prices are listed. A 2m x 1m standard bench costs £100. A two-tiered bench, which is now the firm's best-selling item, costs £175. And the hanging basket display, which costs £70.
Getting the right image
Many garden centres are now opting for a "farm shop" look. They want displays that appear to be made of timber and they want slightly rustic displays. Even shopfitters that specialise in steel fittings sell timber facing for their shelves.
And there is a trend towards making the space look more open. Centres are using fewer high trellises, which impede the view. Instead the customers can look across the entire selling space.
According to Tom Davis, managing director of Stagecraft which specialises in displays for farm shops and garden centres, customers are more "project oriented". They will go to the centre to decorate their patio, rather than because they want a particular type of azalea.
He says: "Linked sales are vital. You might, for example, need a stand where you put containers, compost, plants, fertiliser and stakes all together."
Stagecraft has completed high-profile work at Barton Grange Brock, Van Hage Peterborough and Chessington, as well as a "large and exciting new build project in Northern Italy at Centro Verde Giovannelli". Planteria fit-outs in 2010 also include Dobbies Aberdeen and six planteria refits at Notcutts centres. Stagecraft is in the middle of a big rollout of planteria rebuilds and gift equipment for The Garden Centre Group.
Kemp suggests that these sorts of linked sales are important because there is a "knowledge gap" among gardeners. She explains: "Historically it is young people who spend time in garden centres, but they don't know very much about gardening. So we have to teach them."
As the height of individual displays has been reduced, Davis suggests that it makes sense to use a few tall structures, placed strategically around the shop floor. This allows customers to get their bearings as they walk through the shop. And it also provides a focus of attention.
He says: "We're selling a lot of tall pyramids with seven or eight rows of products. This makes a very strong visual impact and encourages impulse buys."
There is also more emphasis on "theatre". Merchandisers suggest that a display has to tell a story. "We need to put things in context," says Davis. "We can use a wheelbarrow, bicycles or old pots to show how a garden can be transformed. You can organise this kind of display on a simple bench."
Increasingly garden centres are offering giftware. Davis points out that some garden centres are installing gift-wrapping services. These may require racks and rollers for gift wrapping paper, ribbons or coloured films and bows for plants. "We did a gift bench in Italy last year which was 24m long. The same sort of thing is now being done in Britain.'
Manufacturers are also getting involved in merchandising. In many cases they will offer display stands or point-of-sale materials.
Jane Hartley, trade marketing manager for Scotts Miracle Gro, says: "People don't generally come to the garden centres to look at our products. We have to create attractive displays and hot spots where they can see what we offer."
Scotts will provide entire stands where products such as Tomorite will be sold next to tomato plants and suitable containers. The firm also supplies signs made of Correx, shelf-talkers (the labels that sit on the shelves - saying things like "Ideal for Spring") and wobblers (the flimsy plastic strips that protrude from the shelves to attract attention).
And Scotts has introduced a series of Flip Books, which are laminated sheets attached to the shelves with simple advice on how to grow plants and use the various products.
Some firms are keen to offer demonstrations and talks to promote their products. For example, Gardman - which supplies, among other things, products for wild birds - offers in-store posters, leaflets and attractive signage. Gardman has developed close links with the British Trust for Ornithology and can arrange speakers, talks and demonstrations. Gardman marketing director Jane Lawler explains: "People in garden centres are in a browsing mood. They are receptive to this kind of promotional selling."
Lawler believes that we are seeing the rise of a more serious consumer. "People are unhappy about the low price/disposable shopping that we've seen over the past few years. It doesn't seem morally or socially admirable. Merchandising has to give the message that our products are worthwhile and will last a long time."
Many garden centres have launched their own merchandising efforts. Sarah Squire, marketing director for the Squires chain, says: "People expect high standards in the high street. It should be the same in garden centres. Things have got to be properly lit and displayed."
Among their recent innovations are a front door festooned with hanging baskets, and an allotment area with raised beds and planters. Squires has also run a series of evenings with demonstrations and food. Last year, it did a Mediterranean event where guests paid £12 for a talk on Mediterranean plants and a meal. Squires has also run English garden days, serving Pimm's and apple pie.
And it has linked up with manufacturers of barbecues to demonstrate cookery techniques. "We like this sort of thing. It encourages purchases, provides a bit of theatre and it enthuses the staff. The right kind of merchandising can make a garden centre an exciting place."