Top 100 profile - Monkton Elm

A strong family ethos has helped this long-established centre in Somerset to earn its place in the Garden Retail Top 100 and the management has plans for the future, Matthew Appleby reports.

Monkton Elm: diverse plants for experienced gardeners and impulse buyers - image: Monkton Garden Centre
Monkton Elm: diverse plants for experienced gardeners and impulse buyers - image: Monkton Garden Centre

Monkton Elm Garden & Pet Centre was bought in 1978 after David Bellman returned to the UK from farming in Kenya. The glasshouses were redeveloped in the early 1980s to provide additional covered retail space. The latest feature is a new 960sq m, £1.2m 350-seat restaurant.

Andrew Pitman and Steve Searle are now running the centre on the shop floor, with Bellman’s son-in-law Mike Lind working as managing director. Monkton Elm is a member of the South West Buyers/Great Western Partnership buying group. It also includes a pond-side café, pet centre and craft centre. GR Spoke to Pitman and Searle.

What is your new role?

Andrew Pitman I’ve been plant manager for 20 years and Steve has been shop manager for about the same time. Norma Moore was general manager, brought in by ourselves 15 years ago because we decided we needed an outside influence as we’d both grown up in the business. We were a bit static and not seeing the growth we did previously. Norma’s now well into her 60s and has shown interest in the new restaurant, so she’s going to help the transition into the new building. Her old role will be divided between me and Steve. I will also keep concentrating on plants and all live and living products, as well as HR and staff training. Steve will do health and safety, sundries, hard landscaping and more, but none is set in stone because we open seven days a week and there’s quite a few days when only one of us is in.

How important is the restaurant?

It’s a huge deal for us. The Bellman family has been looking into redeveloping the restaurant for a few years but has been unsure of exactly the way forward. The restaurant seems to be the core of most garden centres now because you have regular income from it throughout the year and don’t get huge peaks and troughs like we do with plants. We weren’t sure whether to expand the existing buildings or build a stand-alone restaurant. We had a number of consultants in and the conclusion was to build a stand-alone one to minimise disruption. We’ll move in overnight next January and close the existing restaurant down. It will go back to retail space. I’d like to see a farm shop and another idea is to expand the gift area. We’ve also looked at offering it as a franchise space. We just have a conservatory franchise at the moment. We had more but we’re tight for space so when their contracts have ended we’ve taken down the wall and expanded our sales.

Who designed the new restaurant?

Malcolm Scott Consultants did the design and put it through planning, while Catering Design Group assisted with some internal ideas. We’re trying to use as many local contractors as possible and we’re managing the build ourselves with Steve Butterworth, our maintenance and construction guy.

We wanted to cater for our existing customers, who tend to be the older generation, and also encourage younger people and families so we have a more diverse audience throughout the day to increase customer flow. Managing director Mike Lind has been up and down the country looking at garden centres and other food outlets to try and offer something different. We’re quite conscious that Taunton has not got anything directly the same.

How important are plant sales?

Younger people coming into the garden centre now are literally fair-weather gardeners. The older gardener who would do it by the calendar is dwindling. I feel very strongly that we have to offer the largest range of plants for miles around, which can be controversial as I know lots of garden centres are actually streamlining plants. But if you streamline too much you will end up buying like one of the sheds. We try to use a mix of local growers and some of the best in the country, and obviously source stuff from abroad as well so we have a very diverse plant offering to encourage not only the experienced gardener but people who want to shop on impulse as well.

What plants are centres streamlining out?

A lot do smaller amounts of trees now. Fruit trees, for instance, take up a lot of space and sales per square foot don’t really tally. But we have to look at it as a whole business and sometimes it’s important to offer not loss leaders but slower-moving items to keep that range.

But in the future we’re looking to work with growers so we have a lot of smaller deliveries so we don’t have to stock quite as much A-Z.

How are sales this year?

The planteria has been good. It’s been a consistent season. It was a slow start but when it got going A-Z shrubs had a strong performance and have seen good growth, and as soon as perennials started coming into flower they always take over. We use three companies to deliver once a week and local companies twice a week for impulse. One is Velhay from Devon and then we use Blooms, Hillier and Farplants. The major focus this year has been colour. If stuff comes in looking good and showing colour, it flies off the shelves. We’re lucky we’ve got a great nursery — JB Plants at Mere — that supplies us pit bedding at a really high spec and our customers just love it. No-one else can touch him.

What’s your view on UK or overseas stock?

You need to have stuff from overseas because they have certain lines they grow much better than us. Over the years it’s been trial and error of knowing what will travel and what won’t. For instance, I won’t take Dutch lavender. They never bench like English lavender and Italian stock.

For the very big stuff, none of the English nurseries can offer the sort of range they can. To be a successful garden centre you need to offer your customer a wide range and you need to source from all the very best possible sources. If it’s a UK product then that’s fantastic. I’d always try and buy a UK product.

What about prices?

In the South West we are quite price conscious and we do find particularly on bedding and perennials that we are stuck on certain price points, and we can only really achieve them by using local growers because transport costs are so much lower. Perennials have to stay under £10 or we get resistance. Bedding six-packs are £3.49 or three for £12, which is a difficult price point to maintain. We have two local nurseries that grow for us and they’ll grow to that price point, but if they start running out we have to shop around and risk losing margin.

Last year there were so many stops and starts. The problem is that once you have a stop, stock sits there for too long and it’s whether you react quick enough and say lets ditch it so it’s fresh again. Unfortunately, that’s what you have to do, but you have to take a hit on it. You have to be brave to get it in again and top up. This year has been more consistent. We decided we wouldn’t focus on 2013 because you could spiral downwards because you’re afraid to take stock in. There have been some growers who took big hits and have grown a lot less so have less stock availability

I’m a great believer that you work with growers and if you have an agreement with them you stick with it — you’re a partnership and if it goes wrong you work out together how you are going to move your stock. As other suppliers reduce prices and are almost giving it away, you have to honour the commitment to your growers. You get tempting faxes offering stock at next to nothing. The Bellman ethos is to build relationships with suppliers and treat them as you’d wish to be treated yourself. It’s a really good ethos.

Are other areas overtaking plants?

We are a plant centre and as long as I’m here we will focus on plants as a major part of this business. Other trends will come and go but hopefully the plants will always be the core of the business. I think the family investing so much money into an independent garden centre is showing their commitment to the future, so that’s a very good thing. We can’t sit still. We need to move with the times so I’m very pro it, but I don’t think it should be at the expense of plants and losing your identity as a garden centre.

How are autumn plants sales now?

They can be very hit and miss — extremely weather-orientated. An Indian summer delays autumn and you can go from late summer into winter and almost miss autumn. At least with spring you know that it’s going to happen sometime. We aim to top-up from the first week of September to tune in with bulbs arriving. We tend to be cautious and top-up with small deliveries so we don’t get loads to overwinter, but even during the winter we’ll get regular drops because we still have customers in here who are passionate about plants.

Christmas is a tug of war between departments and what’s going to go where. A lot of centres are putting out Christmas before they start selling bulbs. We try to offer autumn gardening as people come in during September and October, so there’s an autumn feel. We’ll put off Christmas in the main shop and it spills over into other areas from the end of October. We’re the largest seller of plants in our group and one of the smallest sellers of Christmas trees because we have a lot of competition from lay-by sellers, farmers and DIYs.

How are online sales?

Minimal. If online is used it’s after people look in the shop and then order.

How has the loss of Solus hit you?

Steve Searle Solus didn’t have that much of an impact because Decco came up to the mark and looked after us well. In this part of the country we have one of their better warehouses.

Decco is going to do Neudorff and other suppliers have gone direct. But it’s a great shame about Solus after all these years. Most people will spend £20 on a good spade or fork and we’d rather pay £7 or £8 [wholesale] for a good one than £5 for one that breaks as soon as you try and dig a hole.

There’s still a middle market. There will always be someone who will produce a cheaper product than you. For hose fittings you can buy cheap ones everywhere but most garden centres have Hozelock and, yes, you can get cheaper stuff but we use Hozelock because that’s the best one.

Everything we offer should be the best in its category. Customers come here because they’re going to get a quality, value-for-money item.

How is the ‘green’ market shifting?

I think the customer is getting greener. It’s a bit of both — customers are becoming more aware and we have knowledgeable staff who can advise. Everyone says they want Roundup and now we question them on what they want it for and whether we can put them onto other ones.

What are the trends in garden product sales?

The big thing this year has been solar lighting. We sold 144 Gardman globe lights in a week. People will buy six, not just one. Solar lighting is taking off because it’s getting a lot better and they’re a good price for what they are.

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