Something to chew on

Garden centres must provide tangible offerings to lure people away from the internet, says Paul Pleydell.

It has become obvious in recent months that a combination of recession and the internet have resulted in a switch from the high street to online shopping. So what is there left for the high street?

A recent survey published by the BBC shows that our high streets are changing. They are being populated by fewer travel agents and fewer off-licences, but we are using the high street more for things that actively involve our bodies - food and drink, hair and beauty - and for things that help us to tighten our belts - charity shops and discount stores, for example.

A few weeks ago we were curious about the idea of Next and Marks & Spencer joining our industry and starting to sell garden products as well as opening cafes, but now it seems that they are just echoing the high street trend and making sure they provide services that require customers to visit their shops in person.

So what does this mean for garden centres? In towns and cities, thousands of new cafes and bars are opening every year, so in our garden centres we must provide something very special - amazing food with excellent detail, interesting and changing menus, locally sourced and truly delicious offerings and engaging staff. Yes, you've heard it before, but now we really must be fantastic.

We also need to think much harder about other ways we can interact directly with the customer. The seasonal Santa/ice-rink/reindeer are all excellent ideas, as are talks and the opportunity to try things out first-hand. Perhaps your centre should target the senses: 'Come and smell our fragrant roses', 'Be part of our sausage-tasting day', 'Listen to our experts', 'Learn to knit with pampas grass', 'How to juggle fat balls' ...

And all this must take place in an environment that is better than someone's home - because that is where your customers are starting to do a lot more of their shopping.

You must make their trip to your centre more than worthwhile; it needs to be memorable, an absolute pleasure - a true home from home.

PS: In case you were wondering, I think that the first charity shop in a garden centre is still some way off - but who knows?

Paul Pleydell is director of Pleydell Smithyman.

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