Among Britain's favourite retailers are John Lewis, Waitrose and M&S. The chains are known for quality and service. These are retail attributes that garden centres want to replicate as they move from being converted glasshouses to being sophisticated retail environments.
To make these changes requires high-street retail experience, and Haskins buying director and new HTA retail committee chair has plenty. Philip Evason has 25 years of experience at John Lewis, Waitrose and M&S - the very three shops most often quoted by customers in polls by companies such as Verdict asking about top-quality retailing.
So why garden centres? Evason says: "For me it's an area of retailing which was underdeveloped as a retail operation. I see the challenge going forward in my role at the HTA as helping to make garden centres great retail outlets.
"A lot of good product knowledge has come from a nursery/grower background though I did see the sector as having a challenging supply chain. I'm just trying to move it forward really."
Evason praises garden centres' "will to want to deliver good service to the customer" but says many need "improved processes at the back end of the business". He adds: "The front people are good at offering service but processes and understanding of business, operating to be more efficient and more profitable, wasn't an obvious priority."
Evason says it is about using the information available "to make intelligent decisions about what your range could be". He believes that he is fortunate to take up the appointment of HTA retail group when the industry is in a strong position relative to the high street.
But he says uncertain consumer spending means garden centres need to enhance the customer experience so it is better than a visit to a restaurant, pub or high-street retailer. This means providing strong catering, value for money and gardening inspiration.
He says: "Reward the customer for visiting the garden centre. Get the retail right and the growers and suppliers will benefit. The market will grow."
He says tracking consumer trends is important through market research provided by the HTA's Garden Industry Monitor and the Future Foundation.
Evason wants the group, which meets five times each year, to help HTA members maximise the "grow your own" opportunity. "This area is unique to the gardening industry (seeds propagation, sundries, plants and all that is needed for the garden under one roof), therefore strategically it is vital ground for us all to be successful.
"I do think space in the garden devoted to edibles will increase. When, as they have, more consumers get back into working in the garden, ornamentals I believe will follow.
"This is the basis of good retailing - meeting consumer trends. Make it simple for the customer, with good signage, advice and keep them entertained with new products and exciting ranges."
He says visiting garden centres is a "nice to do not a must do", so garden centres need to win "hearts not just wallets". This means making visits an experience not a transaction, with links to the local community.
The HTA strategy document for garden retail lays out the issues facing the sector and how to tackle them. Evason hopes to update the document.
He wants to promote the following ideas: work closer with the supply chain; use Lean to take out administrative and operational waste; work with regional supplier groups to reduce transport costs; and develop promotional schemes with suppliers to achieve maximum impact with the consumer.
One cost-effective way to help retailers will be the National Plant Show at Stoneleigh on 28-30 June, he adds. It will be a "great forum for retailers and growers to come together".
Another aid for retailers could be, according to Evason and the HTA retail group, the setting up of a "How to do it" advice and promotional website that can be linked to HTA members' sites. However, Evason is cautious about e-commerce. He says growth will come from established e-commerce retailers, "ie, the big players getting stronger".
Basing his comments on the HTA-commissioned report Gardening Online, Evason says: "I do question if garden centre internet trading will grow significantly, but we do know that the purchasing decision is hugely influenced by web-based research."
He says he is impressed with the professional training and development on offer for garden retail. Other areas on which Evason and the HTA are focusing are retail development forums and catering business improvement schemes, and campaigning about peat, packaging, waste and Sunday trading regulations.
Evason's aim is to grow the market and maximise publicity about gardening and its health, fun and environmental benefits.
2009 TOP 10 RETAILERS
1. John Lewis (1)
2. IKEA (5)
3. Amazon (4)
4. TK Maxx (24)
5. Avon (8)
6. Brantano (11)
7. Waitrose (2)
8. Clarks (21)
9. Marks & Spencer (13)
10. Shoe Zone (39)
Figure in brackets shows the company's position in 2008
Source: Verdict Consumer Survey
2009-date: HTA retail committee chairman and HTA board member.
2006-date: Haskins buying director.
2001: M&S strategic marketing arm, then director at Dantotsu, an independent supply chain consultancy business, working in manufacturing and raw material sourcing. Graduate member of The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply.
1992: Launched Waitrose export division. Head of Waitrose direct home delivery.
1980-2001: Waitrose/John Lewis - becoming central buyer.
Haskins, the four-centre £30m-turnover south-coast chain, is looking for another southern centre. Snowhill, near Crawley was bought in 2003. The other centres are in Bournemouth, Southampton and Worthing. Ferndown near Bournemouth recently had a £2m restaurant installed. Meanwhile, Haskins chairman Warren Haskins founded 47-store craftshop chain HobbyCraft in 1995 but now looks set to sell the Ferndown-based craft business.