Garden centres may boast some of the finest green credentials in UK retail, but historically that hasn't stopped horticultural businesses falling foul of campaign groups. First came the anti-peat brigade, closely followed by the battle of eco-warriors over patio heaters. But this year, an even more controversial issue faces retail managers - the escalating campaign to halt sales of live pets at garden centres.
Any garden centre that sells live pets will have to live with the risk of becoming a target of animal rights group Animal Aid. After a three-year campaign against DIY chain Focus, the retailer ceased selling live animals in 2005. Then, after 16 months of action against the UK's biggest garden centre chain, Wyevale, a new policy was announced stating the retailer would halt the sale of animals displayed at about half of the group's 115 stores. Wyevale, however, has always maintained the decision was taken following a management review of the business.
Animal Aid's message to garden centre managers is that the campaign, which employs peaceful tactics, is far from over. In fact, a new wave of action directly targeting garden centres is being finalised for 2008. Campaigns officer Kelly Slade explains: "We want every garden centre to end the trade of live pets. The sale of live animals makes up an extremely small percentage of garden centres' profits. Retailers can still make healthy returns on pet-related products such as equipment, food and housing."
So why is Animal Aid focusing its efforts on garden centres? Its policy explains: "Garden centres are totally unsuitable environments in which to sell animals. They encourage impulse-buying by customers who have gone to purchase plants, not pets. Animals bought on a whim often find themselves neglected or abandoned at already hard-pressed resource centres once the novelty has worn off. Based on detailed research, Animal Aid has found staff in such establishments are frequently unable to provide even the most basic advice on husbandry and may be ignorant of the often complex physical and emotional requirements of the animals being sold."
Such claims have been disputed at the highest level by every garden centre manager who spoke to Garden Retail.
New strategies for retailers
Difficult decisions lie ahead for managers at Sanders GardenWorld in Somerset, acquired by the Wyevale chain recently for £15m. It boasts an extensive pet and aquatics centre, but retail of live pets may have to be phased out to comply with Wyevale's operational policies.
Sanders GardenWorld, which launched in 2001, turns over in excess of £8m and has welcomed more than six million visitors. At launch, its pet centre employed one full-time member of staff. But, in 2006, the directors and management team invested £500,000 to create a 300 sq m pet and aquatics centre. It features live animals including fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, snakes and spiders. With five full-time and five part-time staff, during the past year the new department has increased sales of pet and aquatic goods from the garden centre by 150 per cent, taking about £50,000 to £60,000 per month - and that's even during periods of bad weather. But will live animal sales now have to be phased out?
"My suspicion is that we won't sell live pets in the future - it's stated in Wyevale's policy," says general manager Peter Burks. "At the moment, we're in a process of integration. Our pet department is run extremely well. People actually say to me: 'You sell animals and it doesn't smell.' If it's run well, it shouldn't smell."
Sanders GardenWorld's pet centre is under the management of former wildlife park general manager Colin Fountain, who has 30 years' experience of working with animals. Fountain does not have an issue with the centre's sale of live pets.
He explains: "We have occasionally refused to sell live animals to customers because staff were concerned that pets wouldn't be properly looked after - examples being tortoises, geckos and snakes. We're not in the business of selling an animal and then not knowing if it's going to be well looked after. We haven't had to refuse a sale too often."
Trading in aquatics
Fish specialist Maidenhead Aquatics is expanding its operations at UK garden centres, even though Animal Aid is calling on garden centres to abandon sales of live fish. Founded in 1984, Maidenhead Aquatics opened its first outlet at a garden centre in 1989. Now, with 80 UK outlets, only four are not located at garden centres.
Maidenhead's senior partner David Lawrence explains: "Our customers have given us positive feedback that shows they like the relaxed shopping environments garden centres can offer."
Lawrence insists aquatics departments run as concessions offer benefits to garden centre managers. "Not only will the concession provide income for the garden centre, but aquatics is a specialist business. Garden centres don't have to worry about what can be a difficult area, especially when it comes to staff expertise.
"And they benefit from a huge increase in the popularity of fishkeeping, particularly from children. We sell appropriate fish for keeping in captivity. There are lots of fish we refuse to sell. We will not sell fish that stand no chance of survival or will simply grow too big."
At Cadbury Garden & Leisure in Bristol - winner of Garden Retail's Best Pet or Aquatics Department 2007 - this department accounts for about one-eighth of the store's sales. Its 1,000sq m aquatics area has 90 aquariums displaying tropical, marine and cold-water fish plus 12 vats of pond fish. A wide range of birds, reptiles and rodents are available, too.
The centre aims to exceed standards set for pet retail and dismisses Animal Aid's claims that garden centres are inappropriate outlets for sale of pets. Cadbury's store manager Paul Butchers explains: "We work with several organisations to ensure we comply with, and exceed standards of practice set in law and by the Pet Care Trust, of which we are members. We are proud we already complied with the Duty of Care law (2007) for selling animals before its introduction."
Butchers points out that every member of staff has passed or is studying for the Pet Care Trust's or Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association's certified qualifications. This is backed up by product and customer service training, while the store vets potential new pet owners with a 10-point checklist (see panel). This, states Cadbury's management, ensures impulse buys are avoided and encourages responsible pet ownership.
Responsible pet care
Cadbury, which has found that sales of animal feeds generate most return visits by customers, has also been proactive in seeking advice from the University of Bristol's Department of Clinical Veterinary Science and the Pet Parrot Consultancy, which has supplied staff training. Butchers adds: "All our staff have, or are working towards Pet Store Management Certificate 7760, which is a City & Guilds qualification. It's recognised proof of competence when dealing with small mammals, cage birds, reptiles, amphibians and animal health and hygiene."
Monkton Elm Garden & Pet Centre in Taunton also employs a vetting procedure to protect the welfare of live animals sold. Its pet section stocks more than 10,000 product lines and is one of the top five sales turnover sections of the business.
Pet and aquatic centre manager Liz Woodward insists the centre is a responsible pet retailer: "We would never sell cats and dogs. It's not the right environment for them. We do not sell any animals staff don't have personal experience with.
"We always vet our customers before they buy a pet by asking a series of questions. We ask if they have given correct consideration to buying an animal, where it will live and what it will live in. We advise on food and health care and have an excellent reputation for the level of care and advice we provide. Our animals come from local suppliers who are vetted by us and our reptile stock is captively bred only," Woodward says.
However, animal rights campaigners and garden centre managers are unlikely to see eye-to-eye on this issue. But with campaigners vowing to continue targeting retailers of live pets, it has never been more important for garden retailers to promote their responsible and ethical business practices to customers.
Vetting pet purchasers
Cadbury Garden & Leisure aims to set benchmarks in pet retailing with a 10-point customer vetting procedure to eliminate impulse purchases and encourage responsible pet ownership. All of the following issues are discussed with potential pet owners:
1. Start-up costs to properly house pets.
2. Monthly costs - such as feeding and bedding.
3. Holidays - welfare of pets during holiday breaks away from home.
4. Fish purchases - aquarium/pond set up, stock levels, water testing.
5. Communities - will the new pet be compatible with other animals
6. Additional costs - such as vet fees, boarding, insurance.
7. Life expectancy - a hamster lives only two to three years, while a
rabbit can live up to 10 years.
8. Maintenance - including daily handling, dropping removal, grooming
9. Health and safety - for example, exposed wiring may be chewed by dogs
and house rabbits.
10. Further pet-care information - additional leaflets and books are
also available for customers.