Why are small garden centre groups expanding?

After Coolings bought a third site in Kent this October, what is driving garden centres to add extra locations to their offer?

Coolings bought an old Wyevale just a mile-and-a-half away from its Knockholt, Kent base a decade ago, and has now added The Potted Garden Nursery near Leeds Castle, also in Kent, which has planning permission to add more retail and catering space on the site, which is close to Maidstone, Kent.

Gilbert Evans director Mike Gilbert says some garden centres buy another one locally to protect their business in a "hub and spoke" type approach with the main centre as the hub and then they buy other centres, partly to extend their reach and partly to give existing customers more choice.

Whitehall Garden Centre in Wiltshire bought Woodborough Garden Centre last year in a move Gilbert says could have been partly linked to potentially its customers going to the new Rosebourne centre near Andover in Hampshire.

He says Stewarts in Dorset is another example. Gilbert Evans sold it Abbey Garden Centre in December 2016 after the Christchurch-based business had spent a long time looking for a third centre.

Gilbert says adding a small centre to a larger one is quite a new idea but he is now canvassing several small centres on behalf of larger clients. Small centres are "below the radar" of the likes of Wyevale, Blue Diamond and Dobbies, he adds. "It's an interesting development and one we have picked up on and can see carrying on."

In North Yorkshire, Whitby Garden Centre bought Selby Garden Centre in October in another example of the trend, with Alexander Mackie the vendor.

Longacres, Caulders, Millbrook, Langlands, Grovewell, BerwickNorth One and Chelsea Gardener are other small groups that have added centres in recent times.

Taking opportunities

MDJ2 director Andy Newman says the opportunity simply arose in many cases, possibly through personal relationships, adding that if an acquisition adds to the business, then why not do it?

Coolings managing director Gary Carvosso says a personal relationship with Potted Garden Nursery owners Rob and Amanda Brookman led to the purchase — he went to horticulture college with them 25 years ago and has kept in touch "and when that time came it seemed to make the right fit".

He says Coolings has not been actively looking but was in the fortunate position to have enough reserves to buy the centre, with one of the big appeals being the lack of catering on site — Pleydell Smithyman had planned developments before the purchase. A Notcutts is nearby, but Carvosso says the location on the A20 near 500,000-visitors-a-year attraction Leeds Castle is a good one.

Retail consultant Neville Stein says: "I think that if you operate two centres then to run them efficiently requires the implementation of systems and procedures. If those that have been developed are proving to be effective then it is very easy to add a third centre into the mix. Also some core costs such as marketing or admin support can be apportioned over three centres. Economies of scale start to come into play.

"Having a third centre can also provide some career development for your key staff as there are more opportunities available for progression within one company."

Garden centre groups (five centres and under) with turnover:

Garden Centre Group No. of centres Turnover
Otter 5 £19.72m
Haskins £31.6m
Longacres  4 £30.74m
RHS  4 £23.3m (trading income)
Scotsdales  4 £20.34m
Frosts  4 £18m
Newbank  4 £8.87m
Thompsons  4 £3.53m
Caulders  4 n/a
J Parker 3 £19,82m (inc. mail order)
Van Hage 3 £19.13m
Stewarts  3 £10.9m
Whitehall 3 £10.7m
Millbrook 3 £6.8m
Langlands 3 £6.73m
Coolings 3 £6.55m
Capital Gardens  3 £6.4m
Creative Gardens 3 £6.23m
Gardens Group 3 £5.77m
Berwick upon Tweed  3 £4.236m
Tates 3 n/a
Grovewell 3 n/a
Webbs 2 £15.61m
Garsons 2 £12.53m
Gordon Rigg 2 £9.7m
Planters  2 £6.94m
Pennells 2 £6.65m
Flowerland 2 n/a
Knights 2 n/a
North One/West Six  2 n/a
Stephen H Smith 2 n/a
Adrian Hall 2 n/a
Chelsea Gardener  2 n/a
Dean's  2 n/a
Pople Garden Centres  2 n/a
Whitby and Selby Garden Centres   2 n/a

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