Josh McBain, director of consultancy at Foresight Factory, says the UK has an ageing population with 15 million over the age of 60. The proportion of over-60s in the UK is set to rise from 23 to 30% by 2050 as life expectancy increases.
Some 60% of "baby boomers" say gardening is a favourite entertainment, compared with 40% who like cooking best. There are 40% overall who like gardening best, while the cooking ratio is the same across the ages.
McBain says the "ageless society" enjoys "experiential" retail, where they can learn skills such as DIY, and wine or food appreciation, or even pass them on. This gives them an emotional engagement to a retailer.
He says 64% of 24- to 34-year-olds and 38% of over-65s feel the need for new experiences. Mindfulness experiences such as yoga-type activities could be held at garden retailers.
An example of how garden centre spend is skewed to older people is in the wild bird care market, worth £299m, with 80% of purchasers being over 45 years old, including 44% over 65.
Britain's biggest garden centre groups agree that older people are the target demographic.
Dobbies chief executive Nicholas Marshall says he does not feel the need to chase younger customers, as so often recommended by consultants, because the "sweet spot" is that they "need to own a garden", which younger people increasingly do not.
He adds that he does not need to look for young customers and that spending time and money trying to attract them does not work: "It can be a mistake looking for customers that don't really want to spend money on gardening anyway."
Wyevale Garden Centres said in its annual report, issued in September: "The fundamentals of the market are strong, driven by an ageing population, growing consumer expenditure and an increasing number of gardens in the UK. Over-55s are significantly more likely than others to be regular gardeners and with this segment set to grow by 1.9 million by 2020, outpacing the average UK population growth rate, the demand for garden goods is expected to benefit."
But ethnobotanist James Wong says garden centres are "desperately trying to appeal to younger people" and houseplants are the way to do that because they suit "generation rent" and hipsters who do not have gardens and can take the plants with them when they move.
He says houseplants are not a fad because they give people a connection with something authentic, and people are showing a passion for them and upgrading to bigger and rarer plants.
MDJ2 director Andy Newman suspects more spare time rather than necessarily more money means that older people spend longer in garden centres than younger people and are more frequent visitors.
Gardening consultant Doug Stewart has his own thoughts on appealing to the older market: "At the end of the day, it is all about definitions: marketing, training and buying. As I get older my definition of older gets, well, older. But it is all about marketing.
"If you are looking for 55-plus-year-olds for example, then starting to carry out profiles on your customers, using marketing experts who can take your customer address data and then map it against, for example, the data Experian holds and so work out how to reach that market segment, we can find out the papers they read, the music they listen to and the hobbies they have.
"Then it is just the case of putting on events that are in tune with those interests — craft fairs, food festivals, wine tastings, art shows, classic car rallies, all could be great starting points.
"Getting those older customers to return is then key. That is staff training and buying. Quality of staff, friendly greetings, great customer care and excellent quality items help to generate repeat visits.
"However, at the end of the day, it is about being able to answer two questions with absolute clarity. The centres that can answer these two questions, indeed the retailers that can, tend to be the ones growing quickly. The ones that cannot answer these questions with total clarity tend to be declining and losing their way. These are the questions I ask every client:
- "Who are you? Describe your company and its mission in 20 words.
- "Who is your customer? Describe your customer in 20 words.
"Without that clarity of purpose it is impossible to be your best self."
Attrcting older customers
Retail consultant Neville Stein says: "I think garden centres already do a great job at attracting older people. The question is whether one wants to increase the number of older people coming into a garden centre or indeed reposition the business so that it attracts a younger demographic. It is very difficult to be all things to all men so one has to decide on which target markets will provide a sustainable and profitable customer base.
"If the choice is for older retirees then the offering has to reflect this, which means that the café menu needs to be reasonably traditional and ample parking space must be available. There is, of course, an opportunity to use the garden centre as a local community hub for older people — a place where they can interact with friends, have some entertainment and access services such as garden maintenance."
Prime Minister Theresa May has promised more support for starting housebuilding while speaking at the Conservative Party conference in October.
This is an idea that Dobbies chief executive Nicholas Marshall welcomes if the houses are going to be owned by their occupiers, because homeowners tend to spend more on gardening than renters.
Marshall says most current housebuilding is going up outside the M25, which is fine, because London is a "bubble" where few garden centres are anyway.
Department for Communities & Local Government statistics show on a quarterly basis, new-build dwelling starts in England were estimated at 41,180 (seasonally adjusted) in the latest quarter (to June), a 3% decrease compared to the previous three months but a 10% increase on 2016.
Completions were estimated at 40,310 (seasonally adjusted), 2% higher than the previous quarter and 15% higher than a year ago.
Annual new-build dwelling starts totalled 164,960 in the year to June, up by 13% compared with the year to June 2016. During the same period, completions totalled 153,330, an increase of 11% compared with last year.
Private enterprise new-build dwelling starts (seasonally adjusted) in the June quarter were stable from the previous quarter, and completions were also unchanged. Starts by housing associations were 19% lower compared with the last quarter and completions 17% higher.
All starts are now 141% above the trough in the March quarter 2009 and 16% below the March quarter 2007 peak. All completions are 60% above the trough in the March quarter 2013 and 17% below their March quarter 2007 peak.
However, in London's travel zones five and six, 3,477 homes are projected to be built this year, down from 4,523 last year, and 17% of the number estimated by Government to meet demand.