Are garden centres taking business from department stores?

Can other garden centres learn from Petersham Nurseries and the fusion of retail elements in its new Covent Garden outlet?

Petersham Covent Garden
Petersham Covent Garden

The new Petersham outlet in Covent Garden, a sister shop to its garden centre in Richmond and former Michelin-star café, has a deli, florist and wine cellar as well as homeware, furniture and gifts, Murano glassware and Italian hand-painted linen and cotton towels.

The Boglione family opened Petersham Nurseries in 2004 on a former nursery, quickly opening a café and gaining a Michelin star under former chef Skye Gyngell. The new shop features indoor plants, a potting service, floral displays and "artisanal" gardening tools aimed at window boxes and indoor gardeners. 

Petersham content manager Florence Clarke says the range of products has been tweaked from that of the original centre in Richmond to help integrate more with urban London. The shop is opening in two phases. The deli, florist and wine cellar opened in the first week of August, while the second phase will see the two restaurants, bar and courtyard all ready for early 2018.

It attracts a mix of locals looking for lunch and tourists on the hunt for souvenirs. The décor in the room includes two large hanging chandeliers and a three-domed Victorian ceiling in the Georgian building.

Deli Buyer Nerina Martinelli says that the deli is committed to the "slow food" concept and preserving traditions of local Italian culture. "It’s more than organic," she adds. "It has that small village feel in the middle of central London."

The centre also houses a florist. A mixed bouquet starts at £35. In the courtyard, there will be two contrasting restaurants. One is "smart and leisurely", while the other is "dynamic and fiery". The bar will be a botanical-themed area, with cocktails inspired by plants from the garden.

Department store challenge

A recent article in The Daily Mail argued that garden centres are out to "kill off" traditional department stores because they are now selling products that would normally be found in them. While department stores in city centres have declined in number in recent years, garden centres and other out-of-town retail have prospered, despite competition from the internet and economic concerns such as Brexit.

A total of 896 stores disappeared from Great Britain’s town centres in 2016, according to the Local Data Company. BHS was one famous name to go. There are 47,000 retail vacancies in the UK, with 11.3% of shops empty in England. In the first half of 2016, the high street lost 462 units, retail parks gained 172, shopping centres lost 208 and 1,499 stand-alone shops closed. Of the UK's 2,700 garden retailers and retail nurseries, a handful closed to be built on, while one or two new centres opened.

Petersham's Clarke says: "The reason that so many people are coming to nurseries or garden centres is because you get a day trip from it. You go to the centre for an experience, rather than simply going to the shop with a specific thing in mind."

The Mail article also cites the art gallery, restaurant and range of home decor items at Burford Garden Company in the Cotswolds; Blue Diamond's Trentham Garden Centre's "unique destination shopping experience"; and Rivendell Notcutts Garden Centre's on-site antiques shop, which moved away in August.

Tong Garden Centre in Bradford is another given as an example, for its children’s play area, licensed restaurant, on-site butcher, home and cookware section and fashion concessions, plus a department dedicated to selling more than 100 different Yorkshire ales.

Tong co-owner Mark Farnsworth says garden centres are a tried and tested concept and although they now trade more in categories that overlap with department stores, such as homeware and gifts, there is plenty of space for both of them in the market.

Weatherproofing the centre is one reason for diversification, while inspiring browsers with "no set list of what to purchase" is another. Garden centres also benefit from usually being in the countryside and having better car parking.

Farnsworth says: "There’s plenty of space for both businesses and I don’t think that we’re going to kill each other off, nor would the customers want that."

Garden Centre Association chief executive Iain Wylie adds: "I’m not sure that they’re setting out to kill off department stores. If a garden centre has an attractive destination, catering and availability of parking, then the customers and consumers tend to vote with their feet."

He points out that garden centres have an advantage in that they are one of the places where people prefer to visit physically rather than online. Fresh produce also makes them good places to visit.

Lots of big retailers have turned their attention towards their online presence, but generally speaking garden centres are concentrating more on their physical presence, says Wylie. "Over the last 20 or 30 years, I have definitely seen an expansion of the products sold at garden centres because they need to be viable and deliver sustainable and permanent employment." However, he sees it as more of a gradual evolution rather than a deliberate change as argued in the Mail.

Squire's managing director Martin Breddy said: "We offer a retail leisure experience which is a more than worthy rival for department store and in some cases superior.

"Going to department stores was not just a functional shopping trip but a Saturday afternoon out but in some cases we now offer more  - such as free parking and activities for families and children. Their customers are in our sweet spot."

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