The former Wyevale performed only slightly better than Homebase, Tesco and Focus, which was ranked bottom of the table. All were criticised by Which? members who found it difficult to track down staff, whose knowledge then "left a lot to be desired".
Marshall told HW: "The information was gathered last May so it is actually out of date and it's rather odd they waited so long to publish it. Secondly, I believe the information was flawed because it compares garden centres with Argos and Robert Dyas and how many plants do you buy in Robert Dyas. The overlap between us and them is nil. Thirdly, if you survey by email what age of person are you going to get? Half our customers are over 60. Fourthly, the survey is confused. Bridgemere, which is our largest centre, came sixth. And our six Blooms centres came ahead of Dobbies. There are only six Wyevales now and a lot of people will have voted for [GCG flagships] Heighley Gate or Sanders or Woodlands and they wouldn't have come up."
Marshall said his final point was that Coolings, though a "very good nursery/garden centre" only received 49 votes while GCG has 892,000 members of its garden club: "People vote with their feet. I think Gardening Which is out of touch and the editor is extremely rude."
GCG also won the BBC Gardeners' World magazine best garden centre award in 2009.
Large, independent garden centres came out on top, with Garden Retail award winner Coolings in Kent voted favourite gardening outlet by Which? members. RHS Wisley (Surrey), Aylett Nurseries (Hertfordshire), Chessington Garden Centre (Surrey) and Scotsdales (Cambridge) followed closely behind. All five were praised for the range and quality of stock and helpful, knowledgeable staff.
Coolings MD Gary Carvosso said: "We are all really thrilled and booked a restaurant for three nights to celebrate with the team. The recognition for the team is really significant when you consider the perceived authority of the Which? brand in the eyes of the consumer. Many of our people involved in plant retailing and those within the shop environment including production teams have achieved the RHS general qualification. The majority having achieved this studying with our in-house tutor who delivers the syllabus to students who enrol with us for 18 months. The Which? survey majored on staff knowledge as well as the amount of home produced plants and cakes.
"Our aim to add value to the Coolings brand by creating an environment where customers want to talk to us, brought about by having great people on the team is working really well for us.
"We're very pleased with 89 per cent. It's very good for the team to be recognised by an impartial brand. They recognised the uniqueness of Coolings. The fact we beat a brand as recognised as RHS Wisley is great.
He added: "The whole approach of Coolings is about education. They were keen on the number of staff with horticultural knowledge. The RHS general certificate is available for everyone to study for."
Morrisons and Marks and Spencer were rated much higher than their chain store rivals. M&S was praised for the quality of plants and excellent after sales service, while those who had shopped at Morrisons appreciated the good quality seasonal bargains like bedding plants and seeds.
HTA president and Scotsdales MD Caroline Owen said "good service drives loyalty, adding: "I'm a little bit disappointed for Wyevale and what they're trying to do but this is great for independent sector."
She said HTA/Future Foundation research found 49% of those surveyed said poor customer service would make them change where they shopped.
Ceri Thomas, editor of Which? Gardening, said: "While it would be unfair to expect those working in a supermarket or DIY store to know much about plants, it's shocking that Britain's largest garden centre chain and its staff scored so badly in our survey. Supermarkets and DIY stores can provide value for money, but for the widest choice and staff who know about their products, head down to your local independent garden centre."
The survey was conducted in May and June 2009, when 6,222 Which? online panel members completed a survey on garden centres and shops. Which? Gardening asked them to rate three retailers they'd bought plants and/or garden related products from in the last 12 months.
Which? experts combined these ratings to give 53 retailers a Which? customer score.For each retailer, customers were also asked to rate them in terms of quality, range and price of goods stocked; staff and store environment; how well retailers handled complaints; after sales services and café/restaurant facilities.
Scores for outlets mentioned in the press release follow. For the table of results for all retailers featured in the report, please contact Rebecca.Leach@which.co.uk.
(Average score was 55%)
Outlet Customer Score
- Coolings - Kent 89%
- RHS Wisley Plant Centre - Surrey 82%
- Aylett Nurseries - Hertforshire 79%
- Chessington Garden Centre - Surrey 79%
- Scotsdales - Cambridgeshire 78%
- Bridgemere 75 %
- Webbs 74 %
- Frosts 73 %
- Bents 73 %
- Knights 71 %
- M&S 70 %
- Haskins 70 %
- Hillier 69 %
- Squires 67 %
- Barton Grange 64 %
- Hayes 63 %
- Van Hage 63 %
- Morrisons 63 %
- Wilkinson 60 %
- Argos 60%
- Blooms 60 %
- Dobbies 59 %
- Notcutts 58%
- Klondyke 58 %
- Strikes 56%
- Robert Dyas 56 %
- Otter Nurseries 55 %
- Country Gardens 54 %
- Asda 53%
- Sainsbury's 53%
- B&Q 53 %
- Wickes 51 %
- Wyevale (The Garden Centre Group Trading ltd) 49%
- Tesco 47%
- Homebase 46%
- Focus 46%