Top 100 profile - Poplars

Independent family-run Poplars Garden Centre in Dunstable opened in 1968 and its continuing expansion should see it build on its current high ranking in the Garden Retail Top 100, Matthew Appleby reports.

Poplars Garden Centre: business has been going for 100 years since starting as a nursery and the latest extension opened in 2010 - image: All pictures: HW
Poplars Garden Centre: business has been going for 100 years since starting as a nursery and the latest extension opened in 2010 - image: All pictures: HW

Poplars Garden Centre in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, is a century-old business founded by Jesse Little as a nursery and developed since 1965 by Jesse's grandson John, who celebrates 50 years there in 2015. In 1968, Poplars changed focus by opening a garden centre, which has grown with the latest extension opening in 2010. Poplars is now led by Jesse Little's great-grandson David and great-granddaughter Zoe.

David's father John runs Wadelows Nature Reserve behind the garden centre. The reserve aims to be a community and educational resource with conservation of native species at the heart of its management and development. Poplars also has a "learning zone" designed for meetings, talks and demonstrations. There is a concession for hot tubs and swimming pools. GR spoke to David Little:

- What developments are going on?

We've had the asphalters here redoing 3,000sq m of the car park and we have planning consent to expand it so the grass overflow can be an asphalt car park. It's not a cheap exercise because it's quite a large area. It has established use but this will bring a huge amount of efficiency. For instance, when people park on grass with no white lines they park miles apart from each other. With the resurfacing, we've had to close parts of the car park and a number of elderly customers are very reluctant to park on the grass, either because they're not confident with their driving skills and fear getting stuck or because of the longer walk.

- What are your plans for the centre?

We have planning consent for a glasshouse extension to the restaurant and to put a polytunnel-type cover over the outdoor compost sales area to keep the bags dry. We have to think about how the contents of growing-media bags have changed. There was a Scottish case of legionnaires' disease so the safer we can keep things for customers the better. In the restaurant we have 180 covers and we can't meet demand packed every day. We could be losing £150,000 sales a year so we have IFSE's Andrew Fordyce making a plan to take us to 300 seats.

We're also looking at re-cladding the roof of an old glasshouse. I've been getting quotes and have talked to the bank, which is falling over itself to lend money to us for the next development. We're an all-round solid good investment with little risk. For businesses without assets, it naturally takes a much more cautious approach.

- How has autumn been?

Half term was fantastic. We had a Victorian carousel for nine days and we expanded that for a couple of extra weekends, and that brought the crowds in.

- And 2014?

We've had a good solid year with no major gains but no declines either. We have a bit of a hole because we stopped trading in indoor oak furniture because we thought that market was pretty much done now. That hole has since been plugged with plant sales, garden furniture, catering and other areas across the board so like-for-like we are not bad - but at its peak it was a £200,000 hole. I am happy with our performance.

October was marginally up, around two-to-three per cent, and the year to date is one per cent up. Like for like we're just under five per cent without the furniture. We could have done a little better. Everyone is talking about a strong economic recovery. Maybe for financial institutions in the City, but for the average man in the street I don't know if necessarily they've got much more money to spend compared to 12 months ago. Wage rises have been few and far between.

There's been no movement in interest rates so mortgages are what they are, and people are still paying down debt. I don't feel our customers are awash with cash but they are very much looking for quality products, new innovations and a great experience - things the internet can't deliver like a great cafe, soup, carousel, Father Christmas and events.

- What new products are you introducing?

That's the challenge of the winter - to know what other products we might be able to move into. Cookware has been phenomenal as a shop within a shop and we need to find another like that. It may be just expanding cookware.

- Has The Great British Bake-Off led your cookware sales?

Absolutely. We now have significant business from home baking and gadgets because of The Great British Bake-Off. It's nice to see a new generation into home baking. Footwear and clothing have done well too. The next new product group is something that will come along. It always does.

- What about concessions?

I've not ruled them out. We have to look at our footprint. It's frustrating to lose control but great to bring in quality products in areas we're not expert. We're planning the third and final phase of the development then the building will be put to bed.

- Are you planning on putting in electronic point of sale (EPOS)?

EPOS goes live in the New Year supplied by Davidson Richards. It's got to the point where the guys on the shop floor are asking questions I can't answer about top-selling lines, turnover in the first or second hour, what we sold this time last year. That's the information EPOS will give us and its relatively cost-effective. It will give us greater margin control and greater understanding of the business. We've been a bit scared in the past of letting EPOS run us but it's not that at all. We'll be letting the EPOS management tool do our jobs better.

- Are you worried about independents selling to corporates?

It's normal and natural, and about evolving garden centres, which are 50 years old now. There was a lot of development in the first 10 or 20 years as new centres were established and those entrepreneurs have got to retirement age, and if they don't have family coming through they want to realise their assets and enjoy their retirement. I suppose the scary thing is not seeing many new builds and new family businesses being established - we're losing more than we're gaining.

But where there's change there's always opportunity. As a small independent family business we're pretty nimble and we know the local market. Monday to Friday it's individuals who garden, ladies who lunch and mums with preschool children. At the weekend it's a much younger customer.

- How is your product mix changing?

We often talk about product mix and pull out headlines about fewer plants but we're selling more plants than ever. Plants are 20 per cent, catering 15-16 per cent with growth opportunities and Christmas is 10-12 per cent of turnover, with giftware including home and living 10-12 per cent. There are great growth prospects there too. But plants and gardening are still very much at the core. When we had £1.5m turnover 10-12 years ago plans were 40 per cent, but now we're £4m+ it's still £200,000 more on plants with 20 per cent of sales.

- Have you seen shrub sales fall?

Gardens are getting smaller so tree sales have declined and plants that get big have definitely declined, not to say specimens. Container gardening, instant colour and bedding plants are on the rise, though I don't know why we still call them bedding when it's a lot of pots and baskets and very few people bed out now, so I call them instant plants.

We don't see the big landscaping schemes we used to with customers big lists of plants. Customers mainly buy on impulse for pots and holes in the garden rather than coming in for a red robin or geranium. It's all what's good at the time.

- How has being a Future Marketing member helped you?

We have Jason at All in One, Ian at Garsons, Graham at Thurrock and Will at Pennells as buyers. We've been a member for three years and we've forged much stronger relations with suppliers. It's one of the best things I've done. We've lost our chairman Martin Davies and I've thrown my hat in the ring. I'll see if there are other candidates.

- Are you looking at online sales?

I don't think we fully understand online yet and what our customer wants and expects from us. Online could be implemented in any number of formats. The vast majority of what we sell is bought on impulse. We still see the job of the website as driving people through the front door. We are a bricks-and-mortar business, that's what we know, and we serve the local market well, know local growing conditions and do great coffee and soup - you can't get that online. We are about experience.

- How big to you want the centre to get?

We have potential to be a £6m turnover centre and that's about as big as I want to get. To go beyond that starts to change the nature of the business. It's not that the fun goes out of it but the role changes so much it takes you further and further away from the shop floor and people. That's the development plan to take me through to retirement.

- What are your predictions for the industry?

Groups will get bigger and independents will get better. There will continue to be diversification as we continue to move into new product groups. I hope there's a real revival in gardening. We have a responsibility to engage with local communities to get kids gardening, which is good on so many levels. It's good for the planet and it's good for you.

WHY IT WORKS - Neville Stein, Ovation Business Consultancy

Alastair Jackson is a fantastic manager. He's well experienced in the trade and has a strong pedigree in the industry. He was at Wyevale and is brilliant with the customers and staff. I think what he and owner David Little do seems to build a lot of loyalty and passion from their staff and that comes right down from David and Alastair.

David really focuses on what he does best, which is financial management, allowing Alastair to build up the team, which also includes David's sister Zoe. Although Alastair is not a family member he's been able to manage family members well so the ethos of the place comes down well from the top to the staff.

There is a real sense of enjoyment in the business and I am totally convinced customers get that. I've often been in the store and you can hear Alastair laughing in the background. It feels like a fun and enjoyable place and they have that following through in their displays as well.

The other thing is the way that they know their market - they've not gone really high-end. They're on the edge of Luton. The planteria is always good and well-stocked, it has innovative displays and a touch of fun.

Since they built their extension in 2010 they have been able to extend their product mix and have gone bigger into kitchenware, which is great, and they've also gone into shoes but still retained a strong gardening offer. I love going into the business and have always loved working with them in the past.

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