Hayes Garden World in Ambleside, Cumbria, is a top 10 turnover UK garden centre that has a unique position as a tourist attraction in the Lake District. Attracting more families and expanding its online sales are focuses. Retail manager Keith Laird has been at the centre for 25 years and is Garden Centre Association (GCA) North West chairman. Digital media manager Lyndan Orvis has been at the centre for 17 years.
Working with Creative Futures Cumbria and Thompson & Morgan, you have created a free downloadable learning resource and competition for primary school children, inspired by the Year of the Sunflower. How did that come about?
Keith Laird I was at a GCA meeting and the Year of the Sunflower came up. We put our heads together to think of something to do along those lines. Children was the logical thing and getting schools involved was a sure-fire way to get the maximum number of children involved.
Lyndan Orvis We hope 5,000 children will sign up but we’re preparing for 10,000. As something to link it together they are redesigning seed packets and at the end we will create one and make a big picture so everyone is involved, but we don’t know where to put it yet. It’s about letting the children let their imaginations run wild.
How are you seeking a younger audience?
LO We’re trying to grow brand awareness with young children and parents and we’re hoping to attract parents, which is a new profile for us because we don’t get them through the door at moment. We have 10,000 followers on Facebook, which gives us a younger profile, and the competition will hit that social media audience. There are 90 per cent of our customers in store who are not aware of the competition. It’s a huge investment to attract a new audience.
KL During the week our age profile is 60-plus retired people. We struggle to get younger people in. We hold events during holidays with our budding young gardeners club and summer holiday events. Whereas elsewhere they might hold more children’s events, we tend to have them for one or two days a week because younger people trek further to come here. The population is non-existent around here so we have to do more to get them here. The next stage is a big playground and soft play, which we’re getting asked for a lot. We have a lot of holidaymakers and we need to give them a reason to come here if it’s raining.
LO One reason we keep the aquarium, which does not have as high a turnover per square metre as other areas, is to attract the children. It would be easy to move larger volume retailing space but we use it to bring kids into the garden centre.
What development plans do you have?
KL We have two or three plans that have planning permission. One is another catering outlet, which will include the soft play and the playground — something to offer the children. The plan is to make the restaurant upmarket with hot meals and the new catering outlet will be quick, simple food targeted at a younger audience — a US diner possibly. As long as we have a good summer it will be for a January 2016 start. In the gifts and books area we have planning permission to alter and raise the roof because it’s low and we also have a section of open skies covered glass area to come in.
What are your growth areas?
KL Furniture and lifestyle gardening is a big growth area for us. We say that if we are going to do something, for the last two or three years, then we do it properly or don’t do it at all. If someone comes here and looks at garden furniture they will have travelled, so rather than stock just a few items we have items for £100 up to £5,000 and that’s the reason why we’re expanding.
LO Website spend is up. With e-commerce, 20 per cent of the products in store are on the website. In 18 months to two years from now we will have 50-60 per cent and a new website for 2016 that is fully integrated with 10,000-15,000 more products on the site. We’re competitive on product price with the rest of the industry but we have to make sure we have the service, quality and ranges, and quick delivery with lots of delivery options.
KL An advantage that we have is having our own vans rather than a courier dropping a pallet on the doorstep. Online we had 70 per cent growth in a year and online now equals 25 per cent of group turnover. People will pay extra for better service. It’s not about being two-to-three per cent cheaper. In the long term it could be equivalent to another store for us, but it’s all about putting that infrastructure in place first.
LO We can manage growth from the store but online if you get the right formula you can have unexpected growth that you cannot manage. You need to make sure that everything is growing to an equilibrium. Sometimes that might mean turning down growth.
What sells best online?
KL Online bestsellers are mainly luxury garden furniture items. There’s a trend towards a more relaxed dining style. It was table and chairs, now it’s sofa sets and cantilever parasols, not through the table. The advantage of being part of Tillington is 80 per cent of the shop floor range is exclusive.
How do you compete online on price?
LO Because we’re based in the north we have keener prices than most of the south. We have nationwide delivery too. About 30 per cent of our customers are from Devon, Sussex, Wiltshire and Cornwall. The online department is an e-commerce department and it is not about taking trade away from the store. It’s about providing luxury items for people who have not visited us or those who have visited and gone home knowing the brand. There are customers from all over the country here on holiday. We’re a local store but 80 per cent of visitors are from outside 50 miles, so we’re a local store with a national brand. E-commerce and social media, Facebook and Google+ are putting us on everyone’s doorstep and give us the chance to increase our brand awareness. We do feel like we’re the garden centre next door to people.
Christmas is our other big growth area and it works hand in hand on the shop floor and with e-commerce. This year we will have the widest range of Christmas trees in the UK and the most advanced trees with revolutionary memory wire quick-connect lights pre-lit via Bluetooth, which synchronises the lights with the Christmas tree and works off your iPhone. The new technology is polyethylene tech —you can’t tell a real tree from an artificial one. On The Jeremy Vine Show last Christmas they had a British Christmas Tree Growers Association expert who couldn’t tell the difference between real and artificial trees.
Are you looking for new centres?
KL Yes. We had one in the past at Leeds but we couldn’t get planning permission to redevelop it. At the end of the day there is only so much we can do here. The last planning permission was to do everything we felt we could on-site. It depends on what becomes available — still in the north, probably.
How important is it to be a family business?
KL We’re a family business and that helps us keep so many long-term staff here. We’re allowed to make decisions and act quickly to meet market trends. We can enhance a product range through the year. A bigger company would have more red tape. It can take weeks. We make a decision in half an hour.
LO With online and e-commerce, eight years ago I approached Richard Hayes saying "this is an area we could maximise" and he said do it, and seven or eight years later we’re doing very well.
Do you welcome coaches?
KL Two years ago we targeted Shearings as part of its tours to the lakes. In 2011 we were less than a half-day visit, but after five phases of development we’re half a day now and coach people spend several hours here. We pre-book 15 coaches a week and range from 10 to 30 or 40 a week year-round. We welcome them on board and give them a visitor pack. Most people think it’s just tea and pee, but a lot do come back later and make a purchase.
How does the Tillington Beautiful Gardens magazine help to attract customers?
KL The magazine kick-starts the spring season and it has a big impact.
How do you get your staff?
KL We have 120, mainly full-time. It’s hard to offer part-time because of where we are. We minibus staff in from Barrow or Kendal, up to 50 minutes away. It’s the only way can get enough staff because locals can’t afford to live in Ambleside.
How has this year gone so far?
KL Our biggest increase is in plants, purely because it has taken two or three years to get the planteria layout right. We’ve brought the whole store up to a higher standard over the past few years. Our customers expect it. Barton Grange and Bents have high standards and we need to be the same as them.
LO Competition is national now because of greater online retailing.
Why it works
Ian Riggs, Jersey Plants Direct
• Hayes has a wide appeal to consumers as well as garden centre customers.
• A destination in its own right — "let’s go to Ambleside" for a walk round. Visitors are looking to be inspired as well as those with a specific purchase in mind.
• It is very good at eliciting the discretionary spend — the nice-to-have in addition to the need-to-have, the no-list visitor as well as the customer with a list.
• The centre has the space and the inspiration to create seasonal areas and displays such as Christmas that are designed rather than just shelf-filled, creating the "I want one of those" mindset. "It’s not what I came to get but I am going to get one."
• It has fashionable ranges that reflect trends displayed in aspirational settings.
• Often forgotten but not by customers, who often judge a premise by this criteria, the access, appearance, cleanliness and design of what are now called "customer comfort facilities" — the toilets. Large, bright and modern facilities for all customers from the disabled and elderly to children and babies.