Coolings is a multiple Garden Retail award-winner, renowned for its remarkable planteria and growing its own plants. The company was started in 1913, with current chairman Paul Cooling's grandfather, Arthur, growing market garden crops. Arthur's son Michael joined in 1955. The firm opened its 5.6ha site, The Gardener's Garden Centre in Rushmore Hill, Kent, in 1990 and then opened Green & Pleasant nearby in 2004. We spoke to managing director Gary Carvosso, who has been in the industry for 24 years.
Q: What redevelopment plans do you have for Coolings?
A: We have planning permission to extend the shop but on the back of two mediocre years we've taken the decision to put that off and we've done some internal changes in the shop and made more effective use of the space by moving the administration offices outside, and that's resulted in a significant uplift. There's more room for lawn care, which is up £27,000 this year, and it's allowed us to do more gardening for gifts and solar lighting, which has been tremendous.
So development is on hold but we are reroofing the shop this autumn because there are issues with leaks and we're looking at better insulation to cut the gas bill. To redevelop the shop we're looking at another two years because it's working quite well now and the space gain is not massively significant.
If we can sweat what we've got we'll realise the profits. We won't borrow any money for developments and one of the reasons we have a new financial controller is we're approaching the point where we have enough resource and capacity in the team to look at another site. It won't be outside the South East and if you look at where we are we can only go south or west. We've had some negotiations.
Q: How are this year's sales doing at the garden centre?
A: Plants sold tremendously well early on though it's fallen back a bit. We're up eight per cent on plants to the end of June from last year and 15 per cent on shop sundries.
Q: What would you say has helped to achieve improved sales?
A: We've reorganised and are marketing a lot more by colour blocking, and that's made a difference. Planted containers have been good as well. Patio gardening is very popular. Someone recently described gardening as decorating as opposed to gardening, which is quite helpful as a focus since the shock of 2012 on plant sales. On compost, we've done really well.
Q: How would you characterise the 2014 season to date?
A: A very normal, traditional gardening year. March was good. We normally expect excitement over bedding and annual sales by 10 June but sales went down from the last week of May because it turned cold. June has been one of our better ones but not a record because last June we celebrated our 100th, so we had to compete against that.
In plant sales, the whole thing has changed. Mass planting of bedding by customers and real interest in collectible shrubs has diminished greatly. We still get the odd 30-year-old acer fanatic but it's definitely changed so we need to change the way we market towards less knowledgeable gardeners. They could come here and be completely overwhelmed by our range. So the whole idea of garden decorating is now important. We employed a visual merchandiser last year and are moving to be more creative with plant associations and inspiring people. Coolings is not about chasing price but we have to offer added value and inspiration.
Q: How important is it for you to be a grower and a retailer?
A: For us it's absolutely non-negotiable. Many in the industry would look at us and think how do they get that to pay, but the success is in our programming and planning. We don't widely vary what we grow year on year. We produce £0.5m a year bedding from our nursery, £400,000 herbaceous perennials and £150,000 shrubs. We can see that it's profitable as well as an immensely powerful marketing tool.
Most people in garden centres expect plant sales to stay flat or decline as people find other leisure activities and not everyone enjoys deadheading their geraniums or treating their lawn. Plant fanatics who would come in every week to add to their collection, you see less and less of them.
The strength for us is the range of plants and the knowledge within the team. We have 700 years of Coolings staff experience. The challenge with that is to innovate and avoid complacency. We have six people on the shop floor every day who are knowledgeable plus part-timers as well. Another thing is where we're going to get the new staff from. We have a duty to train people but some chains are probably doing it better than some independents.
We do very well with early retirees but if you want young blood in the industry you need to look at exciting younger people. We have two work experience people and hope they will become Saturday staff and maybe one might stay and we'll offer RHS and Garden Centre Association Grow training. We have a policy to promote from within if we can.
We have a bigger geographical reach than the typical garden centre. We have people travelling to us from Croydon, Surrey, Tunbridge Wells, Essex, central London, Greenwich, Blackheath and Dulwich. We have a bigger reach than some of our local competitors as well. For instance, we have £190,000 of acers on site because others in the market are not providing the range.
Q: What changes have you noticed in the plants people are buying?
A: It's predominantly impulse, though we still have A-Z because people come in with lists and we have a number of landscapers too, so it's hard for them to find what they want if the whole site is impulse instant solutions. Bedding and annual plants are really about patio gardening in containers. There's very few trees. We probably have more than most UK centres and our sales have recovered over the past two years but aren't what they were 15 years ago. Even with house construction going on the only people who want to buy a tree are those who want to screen extensions. But I'd like to sell more trees.
Q: How important is it for Coolings to be a family business?
A: People love a Cooling. I say this to Paul - he's very important to us. People like to know it's a family business and there is a Paul Cooling. Operationally at this site he's not that involved but he's very active promoting Coolings at external events. I'm very comfortable delivering on site. It's important to us that the family connection is still made.
Q: What do you see as the main threats to garden centres?
A: Supermarkets. They're definitely going to find it hard to do the whole range and consistent range. We can combat them by promoting our horticultural credentials, expertise and quality.
Q: Has the garden centre market reached full maturity?
A: The figures seem to indicate so but I'm not going to take that lying down. We're looking to innovate. An area of growth is delivering services to people's gardens using the Coolings name. People know there's the back-up and security of dealing with Coolings. We have three teams of two out most days and we're looking to increase that next year. In particular, it's a planting and maintenance service. It helps our specimen shrub sales and a lot of that is being able to provide a planting service.
Q: Do you have any own-brand products on sale at the garden centre?
A: We sell under the Coolings name - we brand all our bedding as Coolings even though we grow Ball Colegrave varieties. This year, we've sold more coral pink and we sell lots of pale-pink and white. The reason we have a new plants showcase is so we can evaluate what to grow. It's not just about providing a six-pack that will flower prolifically in the pack then sit there and sulk in the garden. We're probably the only garden centre in the country that sells six-packs in the green.
We also do own-brand compost, bark and treeand shrub-planting compost, but that's probably as far as we can go that's viable. We've looked at tomato fertiliser and slug pellets but there are strong brands in the market already. Bulrush makes our compost from our recipe that we use on our production nursery. It's a great sales tool.
Q: What is the next area of growth that you are looking at?
A: Garden maintenance. I don't want to say catering because it's too obvious, but we have grown it by 20 per cent this year. We've picked up local pubs' lunchtime trade. The challenge for us is seating. We're at capacity at lunchtime with 200 seats but if it's wet it's 80. We're turning over £1m from catering this year from 80 million covers, which is going some. The only way forward is creative use of temporary external structures.
We've got one of the most commercial horticultural retailers in the country in Jon Reburn. He knows how to maximise it. We've moved to value-based pricing. He's great at sniffing out deals and turning it into cash.
We now have the capacity for click-and-collect starting next year. We've sold online for two years, focusing on plants. We also had six months' negotiation with one of the largest players in the industry on a grow and fulfilment deal but the margins weren't acceptable, but we're open to that.
We have an 11,000sq ft second-hand glasshouse from Holland to grow more, bigger, later product like large pot cosmos and marguerites. We spent £150,000 putting it up, replacing six old single-span polytunnels. We'll be using it for events - one way to drive footfall. It has to be used for production. James Wong was here and 100 people came to see him. He appeals to the urban gardener and challenges some accepted ideas. I find him a breath of fresh air. We're doing farmers' markets, craft fairs, horticultural societies' exhibitions and we want to become a regional horticulture centre.
Q: How are you coping with Solus having gone into administration?
A: We've put a lot more business into Decco and they have coped very well, but we're supporting Solus because we're concerned how few wholesalers are in the market. That's not good for anyone.
Why it works - Neville Stein, Ovation Business Consultancy
Location, location, location While not situated on a major road, the garden centre is in the heart of a very wealthy catchment area, typified by high-quality housing stock with medium-to-large gardens.
Stick to the knitting Management guru Tom Peters coined this phrase in his book In Search of Excellence. He was essentially saying that sticking to what you know is a key driver of success. Coolings has done this - it started as a grower and still grows high-quality stock today. This is one of the few UK garden retailers where horticulture is still the most significant part of its trade.
Productivity through people Tom Peters also suggested that people are a source of quality. This is certainly the case at Coolings. From the leadership right down to the newest employee, everyone seems to be passionate about the business, recognising its uniqueness and buying into the individuality of the company. There is a very strong management team led by Gary Carvosso. Shop manager Brain Archibald brings a wealth of experience to the business, Jon Reburn is one of the most entrepreneurial plant managers I have met, Neil Jackson does a great job at business development and behind the scenes there are high-quality staff supporting the operation.
Choice This business also works because there is a massive range of stock from which to choose. The sheer volume of plants is amazing, displayed in a inspiring manner and supported with great information.