Garden retail figures were told to expect "the brutal truth" ahead of the expected blast from retail adviser Mary Portas at this year's HTA Garden Futures event - which was always likely to be a wake-up call to garden centres.
Portas praised London centres Boma, Petersham Nurseries and Clifton Nurseries, while criticising garden centres she had visited that stocked resin birds, cheap cuddly toys and Haribo sweets. She was also critical of garden centres that sold off what looked like dead plants for a cut price - and criticised centres for failing to deal with plants that had blown over.
The TV retail marketing consultant told garden centre owners that she had "never been to a garden centre where anyone really educated me on what to do with my garden". She added: "It is vital to be able to accept change."
The Mary Queen of Shops star said she was seeing a move in retailing away from "bling culture" because of economic crisis, environmental crisis and digital revolution. She added that the environmental crisis is a "big plus" for garden centres, with four out of five in the US still buying green products, despite premium prices and the recession.
She said globalisation is over and community is becoming more important, citing running and bike shops - which have become meeting places - as good examples to copy. She said: " We're moving from mindless consumption to mindful consumption, reckless to responsible retailing."
Portas added that because of the digital revolution consumers had "huge knowledge before they enter your garden centre". She said touch, feel and service at shops had been lost through fast consumerism, adding that a new universal shopper is now likely to buy at Lidl and Waitrose.
Portas did not name the garden centres she criticised, but some delegates felt they could have been any centre. Others said she should have looked further afield for more examples.
Highlighting one of the most positive examples that she had come across, Portas said the entrance at Clifton Nurseries felt "beautiful" and praised its "return to basics".
She said in order to improve their offer, garden centres should offer additional services such as free garden-design consultation, and praised examples of colour-blocking plants and simple cafe food. But she attacked poor merchandising standards that she and her staff had found at some of the centres they had visited, such as pots that had been left after falling over, messy pond-liner displays, lack of guidance on piles of compost bags and "don't give a monkey's" lack of inspiration. She showed a picture of a garden centre card and gift shop, and pointed out that it "doesn't speak of specialism".
Selling off "dead plants" harmed your business, she said, adding with respect to the usage of Haribo stands: "Why put them in a natural environment like a garden centre even if it brings you an extra £500 a square foot?"
Portas, who runs a retail consultancy as well as presenting Mary Queen of Shops, is famous for her critique of high-street shops. The internet, she said, often did a better job than shop assistants in teaching her about what to do with her garden.
She argued that most customers visiting garden centres had never been so well read on the subject, thanks to the wealth of information on the internet, and that staff needed to offer something special.
Portas has worked with Skillsmart Retail and the National Skills Academy for Retail to introduce a training programme called The Mary Portas Guide to Successful Retailing. The seven masterclasses are delivered by skills shops around the country.
Portas said: "We have lost the understanding of service and training - even in the multiples. We end up being warehouses that stack up stock. It is so vital that independents can put something into the high street that has been lost. We have lost skills and we need to get the passion back. We think that value is cheap, but it is not."
She singled out Homebase for lacking "the most crucial ingredient in its retail sector - knowledgeable staff", adding: "In a giant DIY shop, I want to talk to a hairy builder who'll teach me how to lay a wooden floor. I yearn for a paint-smeared type to guide me through the tortuous process of choosing paint colour and wallpaper.
"If I were you, Terry (Duddy, Home Retail Group chief executive), I'd cut back on the money you've spent luring people into shops with discounts and use it to reward them with specialist advice. Skeletal leaves aside, you have some decent products, but I think most customers want it to be supported by a more inspiring environment and top-notch service."
Commenting on her presentation, Clifton Nurseries managing director Tad Paluchowski said: "Mary's comments are greatly appreciated - it's always nice to know when you're doing something right. Our focus at Clifton Nurseries is always on customer service, highest-quality plants and accessories, and a passion for what we do. We listen to what our customers are trying to achieve and then help them to find the right things for their garden.
"We have a long history of developing beautiful gardens in our landscape business and our retail team is just as creative with their displays. The key to all of this is having the right people who really care about what they do and who are constantly looking for new ways to inspire our customers."
Executive adviser and fellow speaker at the conference Leslie Kossoff commented: "I enjoyed her presentation a lot because she was exactly correct. What she brought to the fore is that the industry has to be more forward-looking in the ways that it presents itself and creates the customer experience.
"Garden retail has a nearly backwards-looking view of itself that doesn't match the expectations of what she calls 'the universal customer'. Until the industry realises that the game has changed - and that they have to change with it - it's going to be at a real disadvantage.
"On top of that, I thought that she actually went gently on the industry. Based on what I'm told is her on-screen persona, I expected her to be much more outspoken about what's wrong - which she could have been."
PORTAS' KEY MESSAGES
- Culture of giving, not "you can't return that".
- Product discovery, not product display.
- Copy Apple Store's free workshops.
- Singer Lily Allen is "excited" about her new vegetable garden, says Portas, but "like me, has no clue where to go to get that inspiration".
- Good ideas include skip gardens in the local community; New York buses with flowers on the roof; Clifton sponsoring the local flower display; Heinz beans pop-up shop selling £1 beans on toast; living allotments; staff with trained noses at Majestic Wines ("I'd spend £2 extra on a bottle there - you get the right bottle"); gardener-in-residence badges; free delivery; and free garden-design consultations.
- Let customers walk into a garden centre and see this season's must-do. They will buy and go away.
- "We're moving from mindless consumption to mindful consumption, reckless to responsible retailing."
- Believe in experience/service/specialism: "We have come out of the generalist world. If you are a stand-alone I'm going to expect consumer service and specialist knowledge."