Garden retail trends, education and working with the locality key as Coolings looks to the future

Horticulture Week's Garden Retail Summit 2017 heard Coolings chairman Paul Cooling's insights into how his multi award-winning garden centres have earned their success - and his plans for the future.

HW Garden Retail Summit 2017: Paul Cooling and Matthew Appleby
HW Garden Retail Summit 2017: Paul Cooling and Matthew Appleby

Cooling who went from one site to two in 2004 said "working with our locality" would be key over the next 10 years. 

"The two sites complement each other well. Our nature trail takes up six acres of redundant land and brings in £100,000 per year. It is hard work but it’s something different that people remember."

"At the end of the day the local population in our area is very wealthy and we are very lucky with our location," he added.

He said: "Having that focus on plants and garden is key, we are known as the place to go for plants. We have our own production site so if someone wants 300 geraniums but there are only 100 on show, two minutes later they can have them. That sort of thing makes us the big place to go for keen gardeners."

On the Green and Pleasant centre, Cooling said: "We invested £2 million on a site that was turning over less than a million. It has taken a lot of investment in people as well as infrastructure to break even."

Cooling said: "There are a number of independent businesses not too far from us who are also
raising the bar, and I think that type of competition is healthy.

"We have two Homebase stores near to us. They have masses of stock and key prices on key lines, and that could be a potential business loss as customers are just going to get what they need and not coming to us for garden inspiration."

Cooling said garden centres must "pick up on trends" and they have "got to be aware of it and drive the market. It is changing and you have to work a little bit harder to come out the other end".

For more highlights from the Garden Retail Summit click here

When asked by former university peer and managing director of Blue Diamond, Alan Roper: "Where do you see the evolution of plants in the next 10 years?" Cooling replied: "People are now coming in primarily for coffee and cake and if we do our job right they might leave with a plant or two. It is our job to educate people on what will grow well in their gardens. We have to make it appear relatively easy to get success in the garden."

Cooling said he was looking into educating customers through "short and sharp sessions. Providing education for our customers gives them the confidence to garden in their own home."

Both Roper and Cooling agreed the current trend was disposable colour.

Cooling added that he had adopted an idea from Arboretum garden centre's Rachel Walsh to have an empty chair at management meetings to represent the customer.

He added: "We have taken on an ex-Homebase manager to run our shop. He didn’t like the direction it was going at big retailers so now he is  leading our team in a positive way which I think will be good for us.

"We are not as harsh with our team as other bigger companies." He said Coolings had a "benevolent" ethos and that "I feel proud of the fact that we are employing so many people locally".

For more highlights from the Garden Retail Summit click here

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