Top 100 Profile - Alton Garden Centre

Altons director Andy Bunker is keen on using local producers to supply the family-run centre in Essex that boasts a high ranking in the Garden Retail Top 100, Matthew Appleby discovers.

Alton Garden Centre: re-asphalting, replacement canopies and new benching are among the latest developments currently going on at the centre - image: HW
Alton Garden Centre: re-asphalting, replacement canopies and new benching are among the latest developments currently going on at the centre - image: HW

Alton Garden Centre is the largest garden centre in Essex. It was founded by the Bunkers in 1971 near Wickford. More than 10 family members work in the business. The centre has been part of the Tillington Group since 2006 and director Andy Bunker, who has been at Altons since 1979, is chairman of the dozen-centre Tillington's plant-buying committee.

He is a big fan of local producers, using regional bedding growers such as WD Smith and Woodlark, as well as Scottish Christmas tree growers. He also uses Dutch agent Javado and has agency contacts at Pannebakker, Impulse Plants and Floreac for 70 per cent of his overseas sourcing.

Bunker says a new category has emerged between bedding and shrubs that encompasses seasonal plants such as dahlias and osteospermums sold in bud and flower in large pots, with old favourites such as berberis, buddleia, forsythia, ribes and Buxus "struggling".

What developments do you have going on at the garden centre?

We have a lot of work going on, otherwise we very much sit on our hands in January and February in the planteria. This region is funny - we generally don't get a lot of bad winter weather and we missed the snow but if you get a late flurry it hits us worse. This year we're putting in new flooring in the planteria because the floor is an eyesore.

We're re-asphalting and we're replacing the Clovis canopies that we've had for 25 years. They were green and white but they don't do that colour any more so it's translucent PVC now, which will improve light levels. We've got new benching from Stagecraft for undercover and seasonal lines too, as well as new trolleys. It's all work happening that is non-profit but if you have the money, you do it. We have to have it done by the end of February so that we are ready for the season.

Do you think that a plant such as primrose might sell out this season if growers have decided to reduce volumes grown?

I don't think so because of the Dutch. There's enough out there. It does depend on the part of the country you're in. We're blessed with a lot of nursery stock growers in the south. We have Lea Valley, Bryants, Burston, Chamberlains for primroses - we might need 20 trolleys from Blue Ribbon or Parkers. Burston does open days with Rudy Raes and there is a lot of development going on.

We've got 15 suppliers without going to the Dutch, which I don't do on bedding anyway. Single-pot pansy and primrose has been 99p since the old king was still alive. It used to be 9cm herbs, alpines and heather were all 99p years ago and it's difficult to go over £1. The difficulty is then you have to do six for £5.50, which reduces your margin. You have to put it in a pot for 10-12p too, so I take the individual at £1.10 and multiply to make a six-pack £5.99.

Has the weaker euro had an effect on prices for imports?

Not noticeably yet because the season has not kicked in. I don't really see, the way we buy, the price changing much. Javado is very good and I will secure a price with them. I will buy New Guinea busy Lizzies at 85-90p and pre-book four trolleys for the season.

How did the 2014 Christmas tree market go?

Satisfactory. Some did quite well and margins are still there, as is the quality. There is no point growing them for seven-to-eight years and wholesaling for £10 because no one makes any money. The Tillington Group members did okay but volumes are down 15 per cent from five years ago. At the moment, most are coming out of Scotland, though a lot are from Danish-owned plantations. They might top up a 20,000-tree order with some from abroad. I'm seeing the secondary sales - a small second Christmas tree for someone's bedroom. They won't pay more than £25-£30 max. They're not going to buy two at £50-£60.

The 'new' category is 'seasonal bedding' - instant colour. Do you see it growing again?

I can see more growth in seasonal bedding. Javado is going to use what I've said about it in their promotions. What's happened is we've taken some perennials like heucheras and nemesias from places like Woodlark that we can sell for £5 so they have fallen into the bedding category.

There's always the argument whether people know the price of plants. It's yes and no. If a one-litre plant is £8 it seems a lot of money to people, but £3.99 is okay. I use the example of campanula. It's a lovely garden plant and if it's £3.99 I can sell it by the trolley, but at £4.99 it's a "no". That shows where something tips over the edge on a price point. For instance, a heuchera at £8-£9, but I'm buying them from WD Smith at £2.25 and can sell them at £4.99 so it goes from being a perennial - which is the probably the biggest change - into seasonal bedding. Five years ago WD Smith wouldn't have grown hardy nemesias and heucheras, but they will grow them now.

What other trends do you forecast in the planteria in 2015?

It's all bubbling along. We're all looking at what's going to fill the till - for instance, Vivid Arts. They've levelled out a bit but still bring in £30,000 to £40,000 a year for me. Christmas is a three-month season for us and now I'm looking at a miserable February and what I'm going to put in the till. I don't want to sell plants too early so I have non-plant stuff like Vivid Arts and Think Outside metal sculptures. By March the plants will have replaced the non-plant stuff in the planteria.

Are retailers selling spring bedding and other non-hardy plants too early?

Yes. The difficulty is the weather is so changeable, certainly in this neck of the woods. Suddenly one morning it will take 20 minutes to de-ice your car. You can't water frozen plants in pots. You still want people coming in buying bulbs and primroses but you don't want them filling up their garden because you've lost them if they've spent £20 and plants have died. They say: "I'm not doing that again." The best place to keep plants looking good at this time of year is at the grower.

Are the plants sold changing because of climate change?

I think so. We're certainly looking at stuff to sell that will take a frost - Bellis and Myosotis - but that can be a short window. Plug plants are very difficult in garden centres - 4.5cm in a net pot, they start at the end of January and you want them off by Easter, and you want to sell 9cm pots then. It's certainly getting a lot wetter.

Do you see plant sales rising in 2015?

That's a difficult one. I'd say they will stay static. The key to it is seasonal and bedding, and that will determine whether sales rise. Nursery stock, trees, fruit, bulbs, hedging - which is quite buoyant with prunus and laurels - are in the background but it will only go up overall if we get a good spring weather season. Good early weather can mean 20 per cent rises in sales and you will hit the ground running in mid March. But if that doesn't happen it will be one of those years that will be acceptable. There is a lot more consumer confidence around now though.

Do you think that chain rivals are taking plants less seriously?

Yes, they are. I'm looking at "put in the till" in the planteria and they're looking at concessions. They're guaranteed thousands a month and might focus less on plants at the expense of that.

Will there ever be a plant concession in a garden centre?

I'd be very surprised. I can see it in seasonal areas such as Christmas trees, but you have to have someone who can look after live plants and it's not good as a grower dropping off and hoping they will be looked after. Christmas trees would be okay though as a pop-up like fireworks. But give a guy a container of plants and I very much doubt it.

How will 2015 pan out?

We don't want a fantastic March - we want a good March to kick on to April and May. In the market you will get traders selling from the back of a van and some are quite knowledgeable, but they will sell whatever they can to get the money in. It's the nature of the beast. That's what we're up against a little bit.

Why it works

Neville Stein, Ovation Business Consultancy

- The personality of the owners, Derek Bunker and his son Andy, is evident in the business. They are both very entrepreneurial and have an intuitive understanding of margins and stock turn. This enables an entrepreneurial approach to driving sales.

- Derek and Andy are both very hands-on and are frequently spotted on the shop floor merchandising and selling. This enables them to be very much in touch with their customers' needs. Consequently they are able to develop a product offering that exactly suites the clientele in the area.

- Whatever month of the year, the garden centre is always very well stocked - empty shelves do not sell stock and very rarely are the shelves empty at Altons.

- Andy is very active in supporting the garden retail trade and is very generous with his time in helping suppliers develop their offering. In particular, his involvement with Tillington seems to have made a significant difference to the business.

Why it works

Ian Riggs, Former BPOA chairman

- Altons has a good-sized car park close to the centre so you do not have to walk far to the store.

- The plant sales are separated from the main centre and the planteria is very good - they know what they're talking about there. The great thing I like is their use of local growers like WD Smith.

- The centre is a bit like Woodcote Green in that it's over a couple of levels but they've done away with steps in favour of ramps, which are easy for people in wheelchairs and for those pushing buggies.

- There is a big restaurant and I have always been impressed by the huge garden machinery department.

- The demonstration garden and allotment outside create a good first impression and I like it that the business remains independent and family-owned.

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