Unlocking advantages of buying as part of a retail group

More members taken on by garden centre buying groups as centres see increase in cost of imports.

Raemoir: benefits from group’s marketing campaigns
Raemoir: benefits from group’s marketing campaigns

Buying groups are growing, possibly as garden centres recognise that import costs are rising and they may benefit from working together to cut costs. Big groups include Tillington Group, Future Marketing Group and Choice Marketing. Choice, which now has 40 members, has appointed Mike Cook, formerly of Wyevale and Briers, as group services manager to deal with its expansion.

Michelle de Lavis Trafford, who runs Choice Marketing group, says Warbreck and Fosseway are new members, while existing members Berwick has added its Plants Plus Newcastle site and Caulders has added its new Cupar Garden Centre. Another centre will join in February, making it 40, turning over more than £100m. She says the group needs more staff to cope with the workload, hence Cook's appointment, and the group expands when existing members have bedded in, which can take a year. There is potential to add 10 more before another pause.

Choice attends industry events and attracts enquiries that way, with half-a-dozen on the list to be looked at. De Lavis Trafford says there is no minimum size for a member because many expand anyway, but they must not be too close geographically to existing member centres. Each case is taken on an individual basis. Networking comradeship and rebates - the group had its largest ever in 2016 at £1.3m - are attractions. But this year she adds that Brexit-induced exchange rate-led wholesale price rises might have led to more interest. "Independents are finding it harder to fight their own corner and we work as a multiple."

Choice was established in 2002 by 10 garden centre owners to develop a business model that would secure their market position in the light of emerging multiple garden centre groups. Choice members, like those in other buying groups, retain their own identity and independence but benefit from economies of scale and being treated as a significant "multiple retailer" by their suppliers.

A professional marketing agency offers members access to creative, graphic, web and marketing initiatives. Raemoir Garden Centre's Elliot Mair says marketing campaigns and initiatives developed by the Choice Agency provide 110-414 per cent return on investment. Choice has around 150 suppliers divided into major and associate suppliers, and giftware partners. Negotiations for terms and volume rebates are handled centrally with all monies going back to members.

Future Marketing chairman David Little, of Poplars Garden Centre, says the group is steady at 15 centres - big enough to be taken seriously but "nimble" enough to operate without paid staff. With import prices going up around 10 per cent and customers looking to upgrade quality, working together works, he adds. "We have an established supplier base and good relationships with them. We're loyal to them and we commit to new products and listings, and ultimately push more product through, which is good for suppliers and retailers - a win-win situation."

HTA president Adam Wigglesworth, speaking at the association Contact conference, said horticulture businesses will be resilient and resourceful. "Collaboration is the key, with joined-up thinking" important, he added.

The combined turnover of Tillington members is £200m. The buying group is now chaired by Dennis Espley, formerly of Squire's. Similarly to Future, the group is not looking for new members, says Espley. Marketing is a big feature of Tillington (as at Choice), with Beautiful Gardens hitting 4.6 million doormats.

AIS commercial director David Standing has 30 garden centre members in the group, which specialises in buying fashion, toys, cookshop, soft furnishings and houseware. They include Tillington, Barton Grange, Raemoir and Garsons. Bents' Matthew Bent is on the AIS board. Standing says "anything is going to help" in the current exchange rate-affected climate for imports and the group can leverage five-to-six per cent better terms on the basis of its model, which is for guaranteed payment to the supplier. This means the main criteria for membership is solidity of accounts, scale, standards, proximity and potential.

Key players - Major buying groups


- Choice Marketing

- Future Marketing

- Great Western Partnership Buying Group

- Prosper

- Tenterden and Tates of Sussex are part of a small South East buying group

- Tillington

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