According To Dixon ... Evolving role of garden centre still valued

The general public like garden centres. In fact, they like them so much that many are tourist attractions, visited for rest and relaxation. The trade has evolved. Early on, plant and seed sales were usually about 30 per cent of turnover. The remainder came from dry goods and tools.

Sales normally peaked producing profits in the spring, early summer and autumn. Each period linked with active gardening and was very weather-dependent. Achieving enough turnover for financial survival in the slack periods was a permanent headache.

Survival, growth and expansion have been achieved through selling an increasingly diverse range of garden, home, pet and personal goods. Indeed, British garden centres are very good at attractive marketing.

Even the Americans, arch-marketers that they are, envy our biggest and most successful garden centres. As garden centres become urbanised arcades with a few plants attached, will customers become disillusioned and move elsewhere? If so, where?

The 21st century is producing two very divergent shopping habits. One is impersonal virtual buying online. The other is physical, demanding the close personal attention offered by small businesses.

This is where small, intimate garden centres offering plants and plant knowledge will win out. Plant knowledge is the added-value element making customers feel that they are served by growers, not till jockeys.

Small-business models generate a variety of niche markets. Some centres will score as highly specialist vendors of unique plants. Customers will travel some distance for the pleasure of buying and discussing plants.

Other centres will offer more generalised plants for time-poor local urban gardeners. Bigger centres will specialise through non-horticultural attractions. Some are already becoming gourmet restaurants capable of bidding for Michelin stars. Irrespective of the model, social horticulture thrives in Britain.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international

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