Keeping the focus on gardening, being bold when planning new developments and taking a collaborative approach in the face of inflation are three of the major themes aired at the Horticulture Week "Going for Growth" Garden Retail Summit in London last week.
Keynote speaker, Dobbies chief executive John Cleland [being replaced by Nicholas Marshall], believes "gardening is the critical factor and is forgotten at our peril". He described Dobbies' three-year plan and progress since he joined the business in summer 2016. The plan involves building core sales by 20% and profit by 50% over 3 years.
Cleland said his philosophy, borrowed from Apple's Steve Jobs, is to "listen, act, then listen some more", and using this he has started to reverse lost footfall and market share caused by previous cost-cutting and price increases.
"Gardening needs to be the priority focus area," he said, with plant ranging, availability, quality, first impressions and pricing all key. Year one was about retail basics, year two generating growth and year three differentiation through service, he explained.
Dobbies has already spent £3.5m on its 80,000sq ft Atherstone centre, hoping to drive turnover from £5.5m to £9m. Retail concession villages are one way to make the centres match potential. Cleland said Dobbies has "opened up" the centre and the changes will roll out from the second half of 2017. The aim is to be first choice all year round for gardening and as a destination.
Cleland said customer insight findings had shown Dobbies was not performing to its full potential, with satisfaction and recommendation levels lower than retail and competitor benchmarks. The chain had been trying too many things, he added, with the core garden centre offering suffering, making it hard to shop, confusing and lacking inspiration.
There is an opportunity from the 20% of customers who want to buy but do not, he said. He believes navigation issues are a key barrier in-store and better-deployed staff can help. Staff "are a key strength but need to interact more with customers and have better availability". Dobbies was "not impressing first-time visitors". He realises that the restaurant is important for driving customers to Dobbies and cleanliness and food are focus areas.
In a session on independents growing, James Debbage of Green Pastures Garden Centre near Norwich told delegates: "We've always used our small size and independence to our advantage." Using homegrown produce and local suppliers helped his restaurant win the Catering Excellence award in the Garden Retail Awards 2017. He has further restaurant and farm shop expansion plans after quickly reaching capacity in his new buildings.
Investment in Mappleborough Green in Studley, Warwickshire, was also "a leap of faith", according to project manager Tim Mason. He and Debbage agree you cannot be too ambitious when building: "At the time you feel like you're being really bold. Think what you can do, double it and then see if it's achievable." Owner Paul Richards hopes to build a five-centre chain using the Mappleborough template.
Mark Farnsworth, co-owner of Garden Retail Awards 2017 Best Customer Experience winner Tong Garden Centre in Bradford, Yorkshire, said "love and attention", with massive investments in staff, playgrounds, catering and fresh offerings, is making Tong the destination centre its size deserves. There will be a focus on plants, catering, the food hall and online, he added.
Preparing for Brexit
A "Preparing for Brexit" panel of industry leaders said prices can rise but sharing the pain between retail and suppliers is the way forward. But Squire's managing director Martin Breddy said rising interest rates are a concern.
Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker said engineering pot sizes to keep to a set price is a solution to exchange rate changes, but added that retailers must not be greedy with mark-ups rising to 2.6/2.8 plus VAT to match restaurant margins.
Blue Diamond managing director Alan Roper said Brexit's impact is yet to hit. "Some suppliers have mitigated price increases this year because they have bought currency, but beyond 2017 it will change shape." He said the National Living Wage, business rates and apprenticeship levies are driving up costs.
Although reductions in interest rates have helped consumer spending, over the next 12 months inflation caused by exchange rates will drive up the cost of coffee, petrol, phones, TVs and clothing. "Products are 20%t more expensive to import from the Far East than 12 months ago. In six months' time people might wake up and say 'it's not quite stretching'."
He pointed out that interest rates reached 14% in the early 1990s and garden retail was not hit, but garden centres now sell a wider range of products so things have changed. Importing direct from the Far East mitigates price rises, with furniture and possibly tools, pots, lights and clothing areas where streamlined buying can cut costs.
Clive Daley, director at retail consultancy mdj2, said there is pressure on inflation to rise after companies' hedged reserves of "good" currency run out in November, so rises will kick in now.
Opportunities to exploit
Roper, Barnsfold Nurseries' Nigel Wait, Dobbies' Steve Guy and Ian Riggs from Jersey Plants Direct discussed how UK growers can exploit post-Brexit changes. In contrast to garden centres, growers are reacting more cautiously to current opportunities that are presenting themselves. Guy said British growers are not coming to him with offers of extra stock. "I am not seeing British growers taking advantage of the situation," he added. The opportunity is certainly there."
Roper said: "We are trying to cut our import from Holland down from 17% to 10% this year. We believe the trend is about local. I am keen to support UK growers, but they need to adapt. They haven't adapted to a 12-month planteria and we have that. The Dutch feed us when we can't get it from UK growers."
Guy said he has a similar, if slightly higher, English-Dutch ratio. But he added: "If UK growers are not able to supply the range of products we need, we have to resort to Holland to fill gaps." He outlined three retailer needs from a grower base - lower delivery values, longer-ranging regional stock to meet demands and consistent quality.
Riggs said: "Retailers should consider the three Cs (when working with growers). They are collaboration, co-operation and commitment." But he pointed out that growers continually find planning a barrier to expansion.
Wait emphasised: "I talk to customers before (my stock) even gets onto the bench. I don't want 20% waste or indeed any waste. We should all go into the season knowing what's going to happen." Roper added: "We can sell more and if growers comply they will also sell more."
Garden centres could do more to showcase where the plant was grown, delegates suggested. Andy Newman from mdj2 highlighted the ongoing need to "stand out from the crowd" in a presentation that unlocked the drivers behind the energy in today's garden centre sector that lies in sharp contrast to the "soul searching" on the high street.
Coolings chairman Paul Cooling gave an armchair interview, saying: "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."