Top 100 profile - Redfields

The newly extended Redfields Home of Garden & Living, owned by Blue Diamond, seeks to bring back a more 'homely, earthy, garden feel', managing director Alan Roper tells Matthew Appleby.

Redfields Home of Garden & Living: covered planteria is linked on three sides to gardening, café and home department with open planteria behind - image: HW
Redfields Home of Garden & Living: covered planteria is linked on three sides to gardening, café and home department with open planteria behind - image: HW

Phase two of Blue Diamond's Redfields garden centre has opened. The store is based in Fleet, Hampshire, and was bought by Blue Diamond in 2010. The building has been extended and rebuilt to 6,000sq m by builder Hodges. The home, clothing and furniture areas have moved from the old to the new space.

The centre, now named Redfields Home of Garden & Living, is an "antidote" to the "creeping corporate look", Blue Diamond was seeing at top chains, according to managing director Alan Roper, who says Blue Diamond is not for sale at any price. He says he wanted a more "homely" look. There are two fully dressed house sets in the centre.

Roper explains that garden centres risk losing their point of difference from the high street without paying attention to their gardening offer or having a point of difference in their home products.

Innovations being used by the centre include home furniture and an old Aga rather than racking to display home products and introducing a "Treetop Cafe" aimed at mothers with children, with a canopy theme. Outside is a fairytale-themed playground with buildings by Enchanted Creations.

Redfields has a central covered planteria linked on three sides to gardening, the cafe and the home department, with an open planteria behind it. Roper stresses that garden centres "neglect the plants at their peril", warning that customers will quickly stop visiting if the horticulture offer declines in standard.

Turnover at Redfields is up to £5.7m a year, with an aim of £9m-£10m as Roper targets the local AB1 demographic. The first rebuilt phase of Redfields was opened in November 2013 and included the Cafe Theatre.

Blue Diamond was founded in Guernsey in 1904 as a fruit export company and now, at 15 centres turning over approximately £70m a year, it is the third-largest garden centre retail group in the UK.

Redfields was founded in 1977 by father-and-son team Roy and Richard Jones. Shortly after the initial opening, Roy and Richard were joined by Roy's daughter Ann and son in-law Malcolm Goater.

- What is the thinking behind the style of Redfields?

Alan Roper There's a creeping corporate look and feel in garden centres and I want to bring back a more homely, earthy, garden feel and try and get that feel into our home offer as well. Because of where we are located, where seven out of 10 people are AB1 demographic and there's competition from Badshot Lea and Forest Lodge within 15 minutes' drive and Longacres 35 minutes away, it was important when we did the design to push as hard as I could towards the AB1 demographic, who in my opinion seek this experience.

- Who is becoming too corporate?

I'm not talking about independents like Scotsdales, Bents, Barton Grange or Burford. I'm talking about some decisions made in one or two larger groups. Independent owners tend to have a vision of their own and they are all very different. It's time to push the boundaries a bit.

At Trentham 10 years ago I brought in three restaurants, pizza ovens, home and fashion and was criticised at the time - people said it's not a garden centre - but look at home and fashion now in garden centres. There's been a massive change in the market place. But that's not like bringing the high street into garden centres.

People come to garden centres to get away from that corporate retail function of the high street. Garden centres have a special place in the heart of consumers and they like the journey that garden centres have gone on. But if you start pulling the high street in you lose that credibility of gardening - it unravels. Redfields is an antidote to what I see going on.

- What are the new ideas at Redfields?

One of the aims of the redevelopment was to reflect the needs and aspirations of our existing customers and also provide new customers with an experience that they don't currently have, to also create an intimate shopping experience within a substantial garden centre. The centre aims to inspire creatively throughout and thus engage with customers' aspirations to drive the customer spend. Thus I have approached every detail and aspect of a garden centre design and function, and said to myself how can I create a point of difference and at the same time meet the needs of our customers?

The home offer is all displayed on household furniture and the departments are separated by green artificial hedging and ornate fencing with garden arches framing the entrance. In the outdoor planteria I have brought back raised beds to display our hardy offer, which goes back 30 years to when I first came into this industry.

The garden sundries area has been designed to convey an earthy garden shed environment to bring personality back into a department that can be a very sterile place. The main point here is every detail of shop fit, colour and layout is challenged to fit the objective of delivering a point of difference to our target consumer. Colours and finishes are also important tools in that process.

- How is the development going at Fryers?

Fryers was a tired, dated garden centre when we bought it and we have targeted the AB1s in the area, and despite a local competitor expanding their business, growth at the garden centre has been more than satisfactory. It's been a good acquisition.

- How do you manage retailing and growing?

It's not easy. We were doing all our own field growing but next season we will be contracting that out and all we will be doing is handling it and potting it up so we don't have to plant the root stock and all the cutting and lifting is contracted out. It takes the management of production away from us.

We're not having to grow a field of 100,000 roses. Gradable quality is 7/10 and you have to know what you're doing to get the grade out and quality right. We still own the brand and do mail order and exports, which is a six-figure sum. There is an opportunity. We only sell two brands of rose - Fryers and David Austin. Fryers is for hybrid tea, floribunda and climbers. The Fryers USP is a range of hybrids and floribundas noted for their scent.

- And Fermoys?

I've given Fermoys a makeover and taken it upmarket from the Value House days. The staff love it. The average spend has grown 24 per cent and we've lost 16 per cent of customers who were value-driven, so we have a net benefit of an eight per cent increase and it's now starting to attract more AB1 customers than there are in Devon. Planning is approved and we'll look at doing that in the next three years.

- Is the general garden centre offer moving more upmarket?

There is a change. There is less cheap volume fodder around and there is more quality around now, and trends are changing. The whole noughties contemporary market has all changed to classic and traditional. For example, outdoor pots have gone from bright Chinese colours to Farrow & Ball colours, which are more tasteful I think and has come back to a natural place, certainly for an English country garden!

- What own-brands have you introduced recently or are planning?

We now have our own-brand Botanicals reed diffusers as well as a range of our own-brand organics. We brought out Blooming Marvellous compost earlier this year. This includes a wetting agent as well as a slow-release fertiliser. We're also looking at own-brand tools for 2016. A lot of our furniture is bespoke this year.

- How difficult is recruitment?

To get the right people takes time but we persevere and we get them. I'd say we've got a really good team of managers now, the best I've ever had. Plant manager recruitment is hard. They're not coming up through the ranks as they used to. Getting people to come to the Channel Islands is hard because it's an expensive place to live and travel from.

- What new acquisitions are you planning?

We have one we will complete on by the end of October - Trelawney in Wadebridge. It's a good centre owned by people who have been in the industry a long, long time. They like what we do and want a good home for it, and it's not just about the money for them. I'm very pleased to have it because it suits us really well. We will give it our makeover. It's in a good area of AB1s and will hopefully have the same impact we've had at Fermoys, Grosvenor, Fryers and indeed Redfields.

- What is the future of garden retail?

Look at what happened with food. They went from big to small, and the same will happen to garden centres. Customers will run from big corporates and look at smaller retail nurseries in the next five-to-10 years. I'm building big centres but trying to keep that intimacy. Large destination centres will always retain their appeal particularly those run with the passion of independents because they offer something chains struggle to emulate.

But as garden centres take on a more corporate high street feel smaller retail nurseries will benefit from a customer seeking a more intimate, credible experience. If as an operator you can protect and continually strengthen your gardening offer while at the same time embracing the opportunities of restaurants and non-gardening offer, you have a strong future. Neglect the gardening offer at your peril. Garden centres provide a unique retail experience and an affectionate place in the minds of the consumer. This will never change." Why it works Neville Stein Ovation Business Consultancy

Redfields... yes, I do know the site. I used to supply them with plants when it was owned by Malcolm Goater and I recently made a visit to the new store in May with my Chinese client. I think there are some highlights of the store:

1. The catering offer is outstanding. The ambience is superb - very different from your standard garden centre cafe. I particularly liked the way that the cafe merges into the covered part of the planteria. Customers can enjoy a coffee while surrounded by beautiful plants.

2. The standard of visual merchandising is very high throughout the store. Not only does it "wow" customers, but the displays give ideas and inspiration.

3. I like the good use of space in the main shop - a mezzanine floor is used to good effect to create additional selling space.

4. The customer flow seems excellent. Core gardening sundries are available as customers leave the planteria with their purchase, so everything that they need to look after their plants is in a logical place.

All in all, Redfields Home of Garden & Living is an excellent destination garden centre. However, it could do with better planting in the car park to create a stunning "horticultural hello".

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