TV gardener Christine Walkden appeared to touch a raw nerve at last month's Garden Centre Association (GCA) conference when she said garden centres could be intimidating places to the uninitiated.
"You have magnificent centres but still the beginner gardeners don't come and in my opinion it's because of intimidation," the One Show gardening presenter told an audience of around 300 garden retailers.
GCA chief executive Gillie Westwood said afterwards: "I think it was a salutary lesson for garden centres to be compared to PC World in terms of being confusing for the novice. Christine has made them stop and think about how they present themselves."
Veteran gardening broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh also told the conference that simply presenting plants in traditional A-Z format was "no longer enough" to attract novice gardeners.
Westwood added: "A lot of centres are very approachable places with good information for the beginner, but I think the outdoor plant area is what often intimidates people. A-Z rows aren't helpful unless you know the Latin name of what you're looking for, but many customers don't even know what a perennial is. Most of our members are addressing that though, with displays of plants for different spots."
Retail guru Mary Portas, who has helped bring the term "shopability" into everyday use, has also cast a critical eye over garden retailing recently, complaining at a HTA conference that she had "never been to a garden centre where anyone really educated me on what to do with my garden".
However, she praised Clifton Nurseries in north-west London for its "return to basics" approach. Clifton's nursery manager Guy Pullen has striven to move the garden centre away from A-Z during his eight years there, which came to an end this month.
"A-Z is great if you know what you're looking for, but the majority of our customers don't," he points out. "Half of our space is plant displays that show you how to garden for shade, for scent or what looks good grouped together. You don't have to have armfuls of books - you just think: 'That looks nice.' I agree with Christine that some garden centres can be quite intimidating. I would feel the same in a posh clothes shop because it's a world I don't understand."
Owner of nearby North One Garden Centre Beryl Henderson also takes Walkden's point. "I do find some garden centres intimidating, unfriendly places," she says. "We want North One to be a life-enhancing experience."
When it comes to plant displays, she says: "We are different to other garden centres in that we are absolutely tiny, just 250sq m, so good-quality plants have always been a priority - we have no room for plants that won't sell immediately."
At least as important though are "friendly, knowledgeable staff with a good attitude to customer service", she insists. "You have to take on happy, optimistic people because pessimists can drag down the atmosphere. It's incredibly hard to recruit staff with the right attitude. There is a certain stigma to working in a shop. But when we do find good people, we tend to keep them."
This has been achieved by giving loyal employees a stake in the business, she explains. "You have to reward brilliant staff and three have been graded up to director level. In fact, our move to take over Ginkgo was partly down to them."
The former Ginkgo Garden Centre in west London, four times the size of North One Garden Centre, will be renamed West Six when it reopens under Henderson's direction early next month.
When it comes to finding new recruits who share her values, says Henderson: "We do get people who just walk in, send their CVs on spec or apply through our website. We have a reputation, which helps attracting staff."
As to the level of customer service in the industry more widely, she adds: "Among the big out-of-town centres there are good ones - Bents do it spectacularly well. But with some of them I don't know how they can look their customers in the eye, given the service they offer. There's just no inspiration there that customers can work towards."
Glendoick Garden Centre director Ken Cox agrees that garden centres have a problem engaging with novices. "There is a segment of potential gardeners whose needs aren't being addressed," he says. "There's an assumption that customers know more than they actually do. We have found that people don't even know what questions to ask. However, it can be difficult not to patronise your regular customers. The information is out there - the internet is amazing. But you can only lead a horse to water."
He adds that the Perthshire garden centre's emphasis on plants distinguishes it from larger chain outlets, which he says "are becoming department stores with some plants out the back". He aims to reinforce this distinction with a new glass-covered plant area that will put plants at the heart of the store when completed later this year.
Plant displays will include "big bold labelling" on the beds and benches, he says, because suppliers' own labelling can lead to disappointment for gardeners having to cope with the east of Scotland's challenging conditions. "The problem is labelling that doesn't mention any downside to the plant, such as its hardiness or whether it should be planted in clay soil," he says. He suggests an extra sign in a plant pot with "I like ..." and its requirements to rectify this.
The recent harsh winters will have caused some inexperienced gardeners to lose faith, he adds. "Gardeners may already have lost plants twice within the past 12 months. They will hesitate before buying a third Ceanothus at £10 a pot. Losing a whole trolleyful of plants is a sure way to put people off."
Grow your own is a further case in point, he says. "It's so easy to get wrong. Often if you follow the advice on the packet here in Scotland, such as 'sow February to May', you will fail." His next book aims to overcome this by advising those gardening in the Scottish climate what to grow and how.
Garden retail consultant Eve Tigwell says independent garden centres have less of an excuse for not gauging their market right. "For the independents it's a lot easier to decide what your pitch will be - they really know their market and will train their staff to that. Their customers may already be quite expert, in which case you don't need to worry about the basic stuff. The big chains have more of a one-size-fits-all approach."
She has some sympathy with Walkden's criticism: "Some garden centres are hugely intimidating, some not at all. Last week I was at one selling potatoes, with a display on how to grow them and a leaflet to take away. Staff were helpful and knew their stuff without showing off with Latin names."
An experienced trainer, she believes that getting this right starts with careful recruitment. "Staff in garden centres are all nice people, but they're not all 'people people'. They'll know their stuff but won't necessarily be the best communicators. Some you can train to put that right, some you can't."
Large leisure employers such as Disney will judge applicants on their initial behaviour at interview, she adds, and will reject those who fail to smile or make eye contact on first meeting. "If they have the right attitude, they will pick up the product knowledge," she says. "It's worth making the effort because customers will buy so much more when they have been well treated."
As to Walkden's idea of having a dedicated member of staff to help beginner gardeners, she says: "There shouldn't be a need for it. All staff should be able to engage with and advise them."
But she notes: "At weekends you really need expertise on-hand because that's when you'll get your younger gardeners who are working during the week. Grow your own is something that brings them in, as is pet care. I have seen huge improvements, but retailing in general is getting more difficult now - it takes extra effort."
Christine Walkden's call for garden centres to engage more with the local community surprised many on the industry, which has made considerable efforts over recent years.
"I think garden centres already do more than most shops to engage with their communities," says Guy Pullen of Clifton Nurseries. "We're celebrating our 160th anniversary this year with a schools programme - we'll be sending a member of staff out to help out with projects in local schools."
Ken Cox of Glendoick says it is now more or less expected of garden centres, adding: "We get asked for something by schools or allotment groups almost every day of the week."
Garden retail consultant Eve Tigwell adds: "All garden centres I've seen have been really good at joining in with the local community, from giving talks to gardening clubs to sponsoring kids' football teams."