Hillier Garden Centres is refitting its estate under new retail director Chris Francis. The Braishfield centre is situated adjacent to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, part way between Romsey and Winchester in Hampshire. Francis sees the centre as a good example of a Hillier refit. There is no cafe and the centre is plant-led, with more than half its sales coming through the planteria.
Francis, appointed in March 2014, says the 12-centre group is set to move into online retailing. The former Wyevale Garden Centres regional director points out that Hillier can turnover millions through trading on its name, made famous with 70 RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medals, to customers who may not live in the grower/retailer's southern heartland.
Hillier has refitted nine of its centres so far and Francis is about to employ a head of marketing. The role will include developing the website and gardening club.
Braishfield's plant sales have grown by 39 per cent and Hillier-branded product sales have risen by 56 per cent in the year from 1 September 2014 to 31 August 2015. Overall turnover at Braishfield is up by 24.9 per cent on the previous year and profitability is up 172.4 per cent.
The old gravel and broken asphalt paths have been replaced by an even Tarmac surface. New wooden benches by Timber Displays have replaced floor-level gravel A-Z beds. Customers now enter directly into the planteria under a canopy by Fordingbridge.
Hillier's new merchandising head, Charlotte Speculo, has redesigned the layout to draw people to herbaceous lines and into the planteria. Howard Ley is the new planteria manager, heading a team of four. Hillier uses the centre's proximity to Harold Hillier Gardens and Hillier Container Trees to stock plants seen at those locations, and it stocks the widest variety of plants of any Hillier garden centre.
The themed "Plants for Purpose" plant displays address the six most frequent customer enquiries - plants for shade, sun, wildlife, evergreen, small gardens and deer and rabbits. There is also a branded Hillier shrub collection. The internal shopfit was by Target Shopfitters, which laid new wood-effect flooring and installed wooden and wrought-iron shelving as well as handmade signs.
The Garden Club now has 140,000 members, who are sent monthly offers and hear regular talks. Group turnover has increased by 14.2 per cent to £20.3m and profits are up 146 per cent. Some 90 per cent of hardy stock plants and 60 per cent of herbaceous plants are from Hillier Nurseries. Sales of Hillier-grown lines are up 38 per cent. HW spoke to Francis about the refits and future plans:
What is your view on online sales?
We have got a head start on some because we can sell plants through our nursery operations and logistics. Turnover would be the same as one of our larger garden centres - 20-25 per cent of our turnover. It could be a virtual garden centre turning over the same as a garden centre. Click-and-collect is part of an online shop and you don't have to have a national presence for that. It adds an extra opportunity to bring someone into your centre.
How are Christmas sales going?
Christmas sales were 457 per cent up after three weeks of a new dedicated area. We have 25 per cent more product in store but we've not bought a lot more Christmas products. What we've done is pull it together to make it look like a bigger range. It's the first year we've done Christmas this way.
How important are the plants at Braishfield?
Plants are at the heart here. The planteria is designed to show our expertise. Plant sales are at least 50 per cent of turnover. One of the beauties of having no fixed square box centres is you have got to take advantage of that. If you have 12 different centres it is difficult because not one size fits all, but it makes it unique for customers. Customers around this area are very plant and garden focused and have large gardens so we target our market there.
How are the refits going?
We have done nine out of 12. Eight we have refitted like Braishfield and have had full internal work done. At Eastbourne we had extensions and a partial refit to add two concessions. Winchester is next, then two sites which are more challenging for this blueprint, at Hemel Hempstead and Banbury.
Then restaurants are the next thing we have to develop. Hillier was a bit later getting to cafes and restaurants but at Horsham, Sunningdale and others we have very strong restaurant businesses and as much as we talk about being a plant-based business one of the things people absolutely expect is a cafe and catering offer. It's the one thing I'd like to add to Braishfield but I can't because Hampshire County Council has a large restaurant at the arboretum and won't allow one.
What about acquisitions?
I won't openly say we will acquire and we wouldn't be aggressively looking to do that, but never say never. If an opportunity comes along it would be silly not to look at it because we have the size and a strong name.
What other plans do you have?
I'm about to employ a head of marketing for the business. The whole website needs sorting out. Having a website and online shop is part of it. There are significant numbers of customers who want to visit the garden centres but can't, so there are large numbers of customers we can attract through the virtual garden centre. Hillier at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show are world record holders. "You're special and great with quality," is the picture around Chelsea, but walk into the garden centre and people think: "Is this the same business?"
It was so far away from that but we have got that in the garden centre now. It's silly not to capitalise on that but we can only do that for people who live near our garden centres. People who come to Chelsea come from all over the world. In the USA and Japan people really know the Hillier brand and there's even a northern UK opportunity for us to grow our market there and who knows where beyond.
How have you approached range revamps?
With the bird care range we had to go to a mainstream supplier for the core range so 80 per cent of the range is from Gardman. But every garden centre will have that range so we wanted a point of difference, so we have Farmer Phil's from Wiggly Wigglers and Wildllife World and RSPB at the higher end. As garden centres we're all close to each other and if the customer sees the same thing at every one we're not going to benefit. We've rationalised suppliers rather than add any, though it looks like we have added suppliers. Before, we had lots of individual products from different people. If it had a lot more space it would probably dilute the productivity.
What is your background?
I left school and went to the "retail university" at John Lewis for 15 years. All my disciplines in retail were engrained at John Lewis. Then I went to Boots, which ran Children's World, which was taken over by Mothercare. Twenty years ago I went to Country Gardens and I think I drew up their first planogram for chemical products when I arrived.
Retail is retail. You go into a garden centre and think maybe it's not as professional and want to change everything, but I was made to work in the planteria and that taught me how different garden centres' business is and you have to hybridise your approach to understand the seasons as well as the fact that the garden centre business is different.
What is your management style?
I'm organised and will bring discipline and structure, but I'm far from corporate. I like to put someone in a role with different parameters and tell them: "It's your role, you produce what you need to with as much or as little support as you need," and give them space to breathe.
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