Top 100 profile - Garsons

In the second article of our series highlighting the industry's top performers from our exclusive Garden Retail Top 100 listing, Matthew Appleby examines the rise of Garsons in Surrey.

Redevelopment plans: £3.2m scheme currently underway with phase one complete and phase two, the centre’s restaurant, set to start later this year - image: Malcolm Scott
Redevelopment plans: £3.2m scheme currently underway with phase one complete and phase two, the centre’s restaurant, set to start later this year - image: Malcolm Scott

Garsons was founded in 1871 as a vegetable-growing farm. After a century of supplying greengrocers in London, the rise of the supermarkets in the 1970s led to the development of pick your own, farm shop and garden centre businesses at the site in Esher, Surrey. The rural retailer now has a second site, Garsons at Titchfield, bought in 1999.

The current directors - all descendants of founder George Henry Thompson - are Derek Richardson, his sons Ian and Alan, Peter Thompson, his daughter Clare James (nee Thompson) and nephew Ben Thompson. A £3.2m redevelopment is underway, with phase one complete and phase two, the restaurant, set for a 48-week build in 2014-15. Garden Retail spoke to Ian Richardson:

Your redevelopment plans look amazing. When does phase two start?

The second phase of the redevelopment will get underway in mid June because we do not want to miss another bedding season. Last year was cold and it didn't really get going until May - and the year before that it didn't get going at all because of the wet weather we had then. There is a danger of a trend moving away from bedding and we want to encourage people to go back to it, so if we started the second phase now we would not be able to have the full offering.

What did you do for phase one of the redevelopment?

We extended the gift area as well as re-roofing two of our bays to achieve as much natural light as we possibly could. Some new garden centres are quite dark, so we used a lot of polycarb to make sure that a lot of daylight is coming in. Hodges managed the building and National Structures did the re-roofing. The old buildings are 18-24 years old so it was time for a re-roof. You get a much airier, lighter building. You're going to get some fading on products - that's the downside - but you can't beat natural daylight.

How do you ensure a good building experience?

If you work closely day to day with contractors you can make quick decisions. For instance, I changed the paving to two-tone blocks.

What is scheduled to happen in phase two of the redevelopment?

The Havant sundries and bedding house is coming down in July with the new restaurant going in at the far end in a new hexagonal building looking onto the planteria and the farm. Our restaurant at the moment is franchised. We've just franchised out Titchfield restaurant to the Compass Group. Here, we've had a lady running it for 20 years and it's going to go out to tender. I don't know whether we'll do self-service or waitress and we might do it in-house.

We decided not to at Titchfield because we got a good deal with Compass, but we might here. Doing it yourself you can dictate standards and move quickly. Menus tie in with the farm and farm shop. The disadvantages are you have got to manage it yourself. Some people say you get bigger margins doing it yourself, but it's hands-off and hassle-free, and if you can work with someone with the same standards as yourself, that's the benefit.

Once the new restaurant is up and running we'll have a very good offer that will be difficult to compete against and will make us more competitive. At the moment we're not quite there. With the new one we'll get restaurant turnover up 2.5 times what it is now. Garden centre-wise we'll add 15 per cent to turnover because of what we'll be able to do better - gifts and planteria. We're looking at other opportunities that we can move into, such as being a destination site, because we'll have more space to introduce new product categories.

How important are your farm and farm shop to the business?

The farm is incredibly important. The farm shop turnover is £2.5m excluding the butcher, which gives an idea how important it is to the business. The farm depends on the weather. It's not a big profit centre but it brings people in. Secretts, which now has Squire's running the garden centre, has a similar set up.

How do you get customers to use the pick your own, farm shop and garden centre?

At the farm shop we put vouchers on the tills and redeemed more than 6,000 ice creams for £1 - they are usually £1.99 - which is pretty good because people drive through and parked again and went to the farm shop for ice cream. We also do coffee and tea vouchers. We also have a pool-cleaning business that used to be a franchise. We closed the service side and took on the rest ourselves a couple of years ago. The service side is a different business so we stopped that, but we do well with chemicals, costumes and spas.

How is the pick your own side of the business doing now?

Pick your own (PYO) started in the late 1970s. It was at its peak in the mid-to-late 1980s and it's still good now. Grow your own has not really helped. What's helped more are trends for healthy eating, fresh food and tackling obesity. It's a good educational tool for the kids. A lot of people say they used to come as a kid and have brought their children with them. It's a generational thing. Everyone talks about our PYO but it's the smallest part of our business, though it's very, very significant. We had the farm shop on the PYO site, then took it here (next to the garden centre) and the garden centre has grown since then. Now we're selling leisure. We sell one-third gifts and Christmas, one third sundries, one third plants and there are opportunities for growth on the gift side. But I don't want to lose our roots in the growing and plant side, which is very important to us.

What are the secrets of your continued success at Garsons?

We're a family-run business and we're able to make changes quickly. We're unique in our offering and always trying to move with the times and be different. Our location is great, although in one aspect it's detrimental to our development because the approach road gets busy, but on the other side we're in a lovely little village and people like coming here to shop.

What are your views on developing the centre's online sales?

It's a completely different business. You can meet in the middle and do click and collect. We don't want to overlook web technology, but I see us as leisure destination for people to come and enjoy themselves because people want to go somewhere nice and do something nice. That's what we offer here. Online we have products and information, but don't sell.

How did last year go in the end for the business overall?

We had a better year than the previous year. Christmas was quite good, the plant season was better and pick your own had a better year because it didn't rain all the time. By the end of March 2014, we'll be six-to-seven per cent up on last year. The underlying factor in 2014 so far is it snowed in spring last year but not this year, so we're up all over the site.

Facts and figures

  • £3.2m redevelopment
  • 2.4ha site
  • 258 carparking spaces
  • 5,070sq m shop
  • 500sq m restaurant
  • 697sq m covered sales
  • 11,916sq m altogether
  • £8.25m garden centre sales target

Why it works - Neville Stein Ovation Business Consultancy

1. Family heritage They have been on the site for nearly 150 years but they reinforce their growing credentials with good images showing the history of the business.

2. Family members are still involved The next generation of Richardsons and Thompsons are very competent, skilful and dedicated.

3. Demographics They are in a fantastic area - very high-end, wealthy customers.

4. Location They are situated in a small village on the edge of Esher - West End has a distinct village feel with a community hall/social club, a village green and a pond. The site is at the end of a lane and the drive to it is attractive - one almost feels that it's a drive in the country.

5. Offering The farm shop is spectacular - and award winning - and draws people from miles around. The garden centre is well stocked, has plenty of room - there is even a swimming pool supplies business on site - and they have a superb pick your own enterprise that attracts people from central London. The garden centre uses this asset very well to help to reinforce the owners' growing credentials.

Planning challenges

Malcolm Scott Consultants planner Chris Primett says: "What we've done for Garsons is prepare a five-year development plan for the redevelopment of the garden centre and to negotiate the planning consent. The site is in the green belt and is in a conservation area, so it was quite a challenge from a planning point of view to get that consent.

"In terms of the retail concept it's quite interesting. What I've tried to do is break up the total mass of the retail development into buildings that have their own character. For example, the exisiting shop is quite a low building so that will go into a taller glass curved building - the plant market hub of the garden centre.

"Then you go into an octagonal restaurant, designed so that you look out onto the different parts of the site - planteria, display gardens, pick your own. All you can see is plants. Then the final part is more shop space, including a large vertical glass wall facing the car park, so when you drive in you can see the garden sundries and plants.

"It's all important because a lot of garden centre designs are samey. If there's a curved or pitched roof that's repeated three or four times and you don't have the feeling of going from one space to another. It makes the shopping journey more interesting.

"In the restaurant I want to pick up the market theme from Garson's history. A lot of restaurants don't have much relationship to the history of the business in their interior design. This restaurant will look like a covered market because Garsons used to take produce to market in London. Theatre is fine but may date and this is rooted in the history of the family, which has legs."

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