According to director of business development at the HTA, Tim Briercliffe, there is a resurgence of interest in training staff. He says this is because of the increased competition in the sector owing to supermarkets and other stores increasingly selling horticultural products.
One key way that garden retail centres can differentiate themselves from those types of rivals is by having trained staff with specialist knowledge, with which they can help the customers. Briercliffe says: In the past, the industry was filled with people who had horticulture knowledge but not necessarily the retail knowledge. These days, you want people with good retail skills and you can teach them the horticulture skills.
Recognising the lack of training available, the HTA has created the Retail Plant Care Award and the Retail Shop Care Award. Both are designed to fit easily around a candidate’s workload and cost £300 each. After progressing through a workbook, employees sit a practical assessment and written examination to gain the certificate.
The Retail Plant Care Award is aimed at plant-sales area staff and is designed to increase their plant knowledge so they can provide a better service to the gardening public who are seeking advice instore. The award covers 10 areas including health and safety, how to be a good plant-sales person and how to make recommendations to customers.
The Retail Shop Care Award targets those working on the shopfloor, who may require a broad knowledge of products for sale on site. Course material covers subjects including customer care, garden chemicals and fertilisers and retail security. After working through the compulsory material, candidates can choose three out of seven optional modules, such as leisure goods and water garden products.
Briercliffe says: Each business tackles the courses differently but it is important that there is input from the management and that candidates are coached along the way. Ideally, a business should have a dedicated person who is there to be a mentor to give students encouragement to keep them going. The candidates that struggle are those that don’t get internal management support.
The owner of the Old Railway Line Nursery Garden Centre in Powys, Mark Cleary, describes the investment in the HTA Awards courses as the best money we’ve spent.
He says: The course gave staff more confidence to answer customer questions. Everyone was on cloud nine when they passed, and this helped morale.
The employees took 18 months to work through the book and often stayed after work (but still being paid) to spend time studying the course material with colleagues. Although some staff were initially daunted by the prospect of exams, once they started the course they realised that much of the content was what they were doing in their jobs. But it’s about polishing their skills. Telling them how to sell to people. How to meet and greet. How to sell without being pushy, adds Cleary.
As well as the awards, the HTA also launched a set of workshops earlier this year. They cover retail skills, operational skills, plant knowledge and plant growth. According to the HTA’s training consultant Pat Kilbey, they are freestanding training sessions but can be interlinked with the awards’ workbooks.
Workshops are particularly beneficial for those staff that want to improve their knowledge but do not necessarily want to sit an examination. Kilbey says: There were approximately 100 delegates at the first round of workshops and in the feedback forms they all claimed to have gained in confidence in their workplace as a result of the workshop, as well as saying that they appreciated the networking opportunity.
Dawn Codgbrook, plant area manager, Secretts Garden Centre, Surrey
Codgbrook won the Retail Shop Care Award candidate of the year 2006 after gaining top marks in the course, for which she was awarded £500 to spend on further training.
Training is very valuable. You can never stop learning in this industry. HTA courses are good because they cover exactly what we’re actually doing at the centre, as opposed to just plant courses. I work in plant care but I wanted to do the shop-care award because when I’m duty manager at the weekend I get asked other questions, not just about plants.
For example, I’m often asked about barbecues and the gas they use and now I feel more comfortable answering non-plant questions. Training makes you feel more confident. My company provided our group of six doing the course with the workbooks. We were a well-motivated team. Two of our group had already done the Plant Care Award so knew how the courses worked.
Every Friday morning our company allowed us to take a couple of hours to work on the course. We did this without the help of an external course trainer and instead took turns reading from the workbook then discussing different issues.
Our company allowed us some more time to study before the exam. We also got help from other members of the garden centre. Some people in our group were less confident and didn’t think they would pass but we encouraged them and everyone ended up passing, most with merit.
I think training can help people who are returning to work after a break or joining the industry. For those people, the courses are good because everything is in the book and you can work on it at work while doing your job, or at home.