Play areas bring in centre visitors

Offering facilities for children is emerging as one of the biggest areas of growth in garden centres and the garden industry. Garden retailers are seeing numbers of families rise as they install bouncing pillows and the now commonplace soft-play areas.

Tong Garden Centre: marquee covers bouncy trampoline put in by Jumping Pillows and a second has been ordered - image: HW
Tong Garden Centre: marquee covers bouncy trampoline put in by Jumping Pillows and a second has been ordered - image: HW

Jumping Pillows has installed a kangaroo-style bouncy trampoline at Tong Garden Centre in West Yorkshire, where co-owner Mark Farnsworth has also ordered another. Jumping Pillows' Paul Copage said there are now 150 pillows installed in the UK and around 25 are being added each year.

"They have a synergy with traditional soft play and climbing frame playgrounds," he explained. "Owners often add pillows and often add a second soon after the first."

The pillows cost around £20,000 and accommodate 35 users. Copage said he is developing a rain canopy and non-slip socks. Tong uses a marquee. Copage said Farnsworth is a "switched-on guy" who is sure to be copied by other garden centres. The centre also has a go-kart track, wooden play structures and large beach-style sand area.

"We had 22,000 children here over six weeks of the holidays," said Farnsworth. "The garden season dips in June and July but we have six busy weeks with the kids. We wondered if it meant money spent in the garden centre, but it absolutely does. We have a small nominal charge for entrance. We are going to extend and put 50 per cent on again just to cater for demand. The whole site is one acre and we'll need all that space. On busy days we have 500 children, plus parents. We'll put in another bouncing pillow, Wendy house and tunnels."

He added: "Before it was just an empty space. There's a lake, which in time we want to make a treetop walkway around. It's been a fantastic addition to the centre. Grandparents are our core shopper and this is a great opportunity to bring grandkids in, and the grandparents buy plants on the way out. We've been so busy we haven't had events but we will do some this summer.

"We have a full-time manager and up to 16 staff on a busy day. There's all sorts we want to do, from gardening classes to a wormery and composting centre - all things to link with the garden centre. The good thing for us is it's nicely tucked away so it doesn't upset our existing customers. Things have changed with children. They don't play outside so much on the street and are more often taken out."

Meanwhile, Frost's Willington garden centre won consent late last year to convert warehouses into a 700sq m indoor play barn. Elsewhere, House of Play has supplied indoor soft-play equipment to Gates and Ruxley Manor as well as Wyevale Garden Centres. Wyevale has 48 soft-play areas and Wyevale ran kids' events every day for "Spring Week" (4-8 April) at 70 of its 153 garden centres.

The top 50 sites ran a variety of events because they are larger locations and the remaining 20 are running "Sweet Tweets" events. These include creating a mini garden, planting tomatoes and making a chocolate nest. Wyevale is linking events to its soft-play areas, which are at the majority of participating centres, and promoting its centres as dogand family-friendly environments.

At the recent HTA marketing conference, Hillview Group chief executive Boyd Douglas Davies said: "The Soft Play Barn has been a fantastic investment for Hilltop Garden Store. Not only has it achieved its initial aims to attract a younger demographic and increased footfall to the site, it has also benefited the whole store, with Hilltop's sales up by 29.8 per cent this year."

In one year 26,123 children have been charged to play, with 1,035 attending birthday parties. Some £197,210 has been spent by customers in the barn, with £13,000 raised for the Greenfingers charity, and total site sales up 29.8 per cent year on year. Set-up costs were about £40,000.

Garden show organisers are also trying bring in more children. Ben Faulks as Mr Bloom and Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins will join forces to headline "Family Day" at RHS Malvern Spring Festival on 8 May. They will host a planting session on how to grow your own vegetables for your lunch box together with bountiful workshops from The Great Allotment Challenge's Jonathan Moseley.

Planning - Tong play area gains approval as integral to centre

Malcolm Scott Consultants’ Chris Primett said Tong’s play area extension was granted permission this month, including retrospective planning for existing play equipment. The council argued that the 3,000sq m play site on green belt land had created a change in land use to a leisure destination, but he maintained that the play area was integral to the garden centre.

"In that area there was a crying need for some form of play facilities," added Primett. "I’m seeing more and more play areas open at garden centres but it depends on the operator. Each has a different view. It depends on space and parking capacity. At Hilltop the play area was to put them on the map and at Tong it was to increase footfall."

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