Squire's garden centre in Twickenham celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Before Twickenham, Squire's was nurserymen and landscape gardeners, with the business started by chairman Colin Squire's father DJ Squire. The site now turns over £6.85m a year and has new electronic point of sale installed by Corby & Fellas. Squire's rebuilt Twickenham in 1992-93 and refurbished in 2012-13 to include Squire's Cafe Bar, designed by Pleydell Smithyman. We spoke to managing director Dennis Espley.
What are the strengths of Twickenham?
The planteria is the big strength of the centre and everything else we sell that's not gardening is still a bonus. Twickenham has always been a strong gardening centre. Two years ago we had a revamp of the centre and restaurant.
What is the local competition?
People don't travel that far in London. It's all about minutes rather than miles. We are truly a local garden centre. That's our theme for all our customers - to concentrate on local and be a part of the community. We don't want to confuse people about us being a destination centre. Badshot Lea is our only destination centre and Shepperton a little so. There's a huge number of garden centres within 10 miles of Twickenham and people don't have to travel, though people do travel here for plants.
The big thing is plants here - they are £1.75m of the total turnover. We sell a lot of truly gardening product. We have a smaller cafe that we don't want to make too big. Because we have a small car park the danger is with too big a cafe there is too long dwell time and people are not spending enough. At busy times of the year the cafe will be full and people will be driving away because they can't get in. We've just extend it slightly because it was too tight and we worked out that was why we weren't doing as well as we'd liked.
What is the history of the Twickenham site?
This was our first purpose-built centre in the 1960s and was very much designed by Colin Squire and had one of the first cafes within a garden centre. We had our 50th anniversary in 2013 and Twickenham was our largest-turnover garden centre for years, and it's now second behind Badshot Lea.
But turnover per square foot is the best in the group and one of the best in the UK. Some big garden centres take the same money. I do see ourselves as garden retailers and not just a leisure outlet. Gardening and plants come first for us and that's the way to maximise footfall. About 25 per cent of sales are plants on this site.
Do you see the centre maintaining its plant sales percentage?
I probably do here because there's not the opportunity to diversify quite as much. The pet area is ours - we had a concession - so we enlarged the pets and aquatics area (in another building), replaced it with craft and extended gifts and the cafe.
What are your plans for Squire's 80th anniversary in 2016?
The 80th will be a celebration, which Sarah Squire will start planning this May. We're at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show again this year with Colin Squire and Ian Hammond designing a garden. We're one of the few original exhibitors who have been at all 25 Hampton Court shows.
How do you promote garden retail as an RHS Council member?
I think what the RHS does is promote gardening as a whole and anyone who does that is good for all garden centres and not just Squire's. Gardening really is good for all - I personally believe that. It's nice to be included, albeit commercially, in something that does good for people's health and well-being.
Do you have an apprentice scheme?
We have Westland Rising Stars apprentices and our own through our HR manager Jo Ripley and operations manager Andy Bunt. We have two apprentices this year doing RHS courses and four Westland apprentices including one at Twickenham. We do staff horticultural training at Wisley, which works well for us. It's central for Squire's. We used to get trainers in to Badshot Lea but to go to Wisley gives it credibility you can't get in a meeting room.
Is there pricing pressure from pound stores?
There's competitive pricing from like-minded businesses including garden centre chains, DIY stores and supermarkets but I don't think pound stores are giving us price pressure. We don't get comments from customers. We keep an eye on pricing, product development and range. Nothing is nagging us this year. We tend to be quite competitive on furniture, not selling at RRP but based on a fair price.
Are you planning more own-brand products?
We do own-brand compost and plants - roses and bedding - and through Beautiful Gardens and the Tillington Group. We have some exclusive plants but we don't plan any more own-brand.
What development plans do you have within Squire's 15 centres?
One that is ready to roll is Woking Garden Centre. We have plans to significantly develop it and that is scheduled to open in spring 2017, with the start in 2016. We don't know who is doing the work yet. We're getting re-tenders. We're looking at centres for long-term development - Long Ditton, Washington and Cobham - and we're deciding of the three which one to move forward first. We'll pick one and take it through planning. The trouble is these days planning only lasts three years, which sounds a long time but isn't actually. If something else comes up planning permission might expire so we're pacing ourselves until we're likely to do it.
Are you planning any acquisitions?
We're always open to individual centres. Obviously there's strong competition with Wyevale, Blue Diamond, Notcutts, Haskins and to a point Hillview, and no doubt some independents. We wouldn't go far outside our current geographical area. We like to get round centres a lot. An hour from our midpoint works well for us.
What do you plan to do online?
We're installing electronic point of sale. It was done at five sites in January with 10 to come in July. From 1 August we will be able to implement a customer loyalty scheme planned for 2016 and then we will give thought to click-and-collect - it is more profitable because it brings in customers - and at a later stage we might consider e-trading.
Are garden centres getting more valuable as housing or supermarket plots?
It depends on the site. For people with very big sites this is probably the case but with small sites the value of the garden centre is better. If you're on 10 acres there's a lot of spare space but on 1.5 acres there's not so much and the value is quite high. For example, with Waitrose, if the centre has a lot of spare land the centre owners will look at all options, but hardly any of our sites have any spare land.
What are your retirement plans?
I'm retiring in September 2016 so no doubt Colin and Sarah will be working on plans for the future from January next year.
Why it works
Neville Stein, Ovation Business Consultancy
This is a great garden centre. The planteria is fantastic, having achieved many major awards. Ian Hammond, the planteria manager, should be congratulated on developing a section that is inspiring, creative and very professionally run, with strong attention to detail. I believe that Ian is one of the best planteria operators in the country.
General manager Julie Leatherdale is also well experienced and every time I have met her has clearly displayed a passion for customer service. In addition, the centre has a redeveloped catering offer that is stylish and modern - applicable for the local demographics. This is a very well-run centre that still has strong emphasis on core gardening.