Designer centres

Offering design services is an increasingly popular method for garden centres to attract customers with money to spend, Jack Shamash discovers

Image: Hambrooks Landscapes
Image: Hambrooks Landscapes

At one end of Blue Diamond’s Brambridge Park Garden Centre in Hampshire, a series of three new display gardens is taking shape.

The first, which is largely finished, is a formal English country garden complete with rose beds, lavender and bay trees as well as a small orchard of apple trees and a wild flower meadow area.

Nearby is a Mediterranean garden featuring lots of heavy floral planting and a selection of drought-tolerant plants. This is expected to be finished by the start of June. In September, the third garden is scheduled to open. This will be an oriental garden, with acers and magnolias.

The gardens are a result of a joint initiative between a landscape designer and the garden centre. It is just one way in which designers are working more closely with centres to boost sales — of landscaping products and plants.

As garden centres are increasingly finding out, it is a good way of increasing sales to affluent clients who do not mind spending money to get a nice-looking garden.

Brambridge Park Garden Centre manager Andy Harding explains: "We had three fairly large gardens that had been overgrown for years.

"I got talking to Norman Hambrook, managing director of Hambrooks Landscapes. He offered to maintain the gardens if we let him use the space as a design centre."

The two organisations started working together last year. The gardens now have a small wood-framed building that is used as a design studio. From this, Hambrooks offers design, maintenance, landscaping and planting — and, of course, it has all the latest computer-aided design software.

Hambrook says: "People usually ask for a site visit. Customers pay for any plans that we are asked to produce. We can also do the physical work of creating the garden."

New customers

The location has attracted a new range of customers for Hambrooks. "We were very keen to get involved in the Winchester area, which is very prosperous, so we needed a local base. We’ve got a good name so we can also attract people to the garden centre. It works very well for both sides," says Hambrook.

As Harding points out, the relationship between the two firms is managed through a strict agreement. "If they sell a landscaping service, the plant sales must come to us," he says.

"We are obviously trying to sell more aggregates and compost, but we don’t insist that Hambrooks uses our landscaping materials. Obviously there is a large element of trust in the relationship.

"It’s only been going for a year so it’s difficult to calculate its success. We’ve also had a very bad spring, which hasn’t helped. But it has been very useful for our customers.

"People don’t always know how to get hold of landscapers, but when they come here they can meet up with them and have an informal conversation."

Hambrooks is certainly committed to the scheme and has just done a mail-out to promote the service to local households.

Because the scheme is in its infancy, there are no plans to expand or franchise the in-house design centre to other garden centres. But Hambrooks is trying to spread its reach. It has put up story boards and touchscreen computers in eight other garden centres to attract potential customers.

Importance of design

For some garden centres, design is extremely important. Moota Garden Centre in Cumbria was initially a design service but started selling plants and landscaping seven years ago. It gets a substantial number of major contracts.

"Our biggest recent job was £90,000 worth of work over 18 months. This included installing a driveway," says director Neil Simpson. The company has close links with electricians and other trades, so it can offer a one-stop shop.

The centre has two landscape architects based in a design office in the planteria and it is currently creating several display gardens on the site.

"This means we can show plants that they might want to order," says Simpson. They can also offer landscaping services, including drystone walling and paving.

However, Simpson stresses that he is not keen to stock large amounts of aggregates or stone because margins on these products are modest.

Other garden centres have also been experimenting with various types of in-house design services. The upmarket Clifton Garden Centre, based in the exclusive Little Venice area of central London, has three designers based at the centre for at least part of the week. The best-known of them is broadcaster and writer Matthew Wilson.

Clifton’s marketing manger Wendy Bowen says: "Our clients vary greatly. Some are not really gardeners, but just want their gardens to look beautiful. Others care about plants and they want inspiration."

Many clients have lots of money but only have small, inner-city courtyard gardens. In the same way that they might employ an interior decorator to make the most of their property, they will get a garden designer to get the best use out of a confined space.

For the garden centre, it makes good financial sense. "It boosts sales of landscaping and plants. Using a landscaper gives people confidence to use the plants and containers that we sell. But it also makes us more classy. People see us as a complete service," says Bowen.

Clifton Garden Centre has dedicated space to a new "garden design hub", which should be a sort of showroom of paving, decking and trellises as well as plants.

Scotsdales Garden Centre in Cambridge uses another business model. The Scotsdale Garden Design Centre is run as a concession — a separate business within the store.

Caroline Owens, managing director of the entire garden centre, says: "The design company has been an integral part of the centre for many years.

"They don’t pay rent, but they have to use our plants and they will usually buy landscaping materials — such as soil and mulches — from us. They don’t increase our footfall but it’s another service that we offer and it makes us look more professional."

The sales resulting from this operation are not enormous — £5,000 of plants and landscaping materials would be a large contract — but it provides a useful addition to turnover.

The Garden Design Centre has no plans to franchise its business or to expand its operations to other garden centres. However, it has created 13 designers’ gardens on its Cambridge site as a way of promoting its products.

Coolings, based near Sevenoaks in Kent, has a much looser relationship with its designers. Business development manager Neil Jackson explains that Coolings has several landscape practices to which it refers customers.

"We simply make the referral and the designers agree to buy the plants from us," he says.

In practice, the centre has a nucleus of three designers on whom it regularly calls. In addition, there are four or five others who are used more infrequently.

"It depends on the kind of work that the clients want. Some of these firms have greater expertise in planting, others may specialise in landscaping," adds Jackson.

The design service is an increasingly important part of the business. Coolings offers a variety of services including consultation, planting, irrigation and garden maintenance.The area around Sevenoaks has numerous retired people, many on excellent pensions. They are happy to use their disposable income to keep their gardens in good order.

Jackson points out that there has to be trust between the garden centre and any outside designer. "If we refer somebody and there are problems, it will come back to us — we will be blamed," he says.

He also stresses that centres have to be able to trust that the designers are not going behind the backs of the centres and buying plants elsewhere. "We keep in regular touch with our customers and we make follow-up calls, so we’re fairly confident that nothing underhand is going on."

Forging links

Suppliers of stone and other landscaping materials have started to see the advantages of forging links with designers.

Aggregate Industries brand Border Stone, for example, now works with designer Paul Hervey Brookes. Over the past few weeks, he has put out a blog and a brochure with hints on design.

Although Border Stone does supply to some garden centres, it is not involved in any joint initiatives or reciprocal arrangements.

Similarly Kelkay, a major supplier of garden aggregates and stones, has been involved in developing point-of-sale material including QR codes to help customers design their own gardens.

It is also putting up stands in garden centres focusing on lifestyles, showing, for example, how products can be used to create a restful courtyard.

Paving supplier Marshalls has also been encouraging lifestyle displays and is building up a network of garden designers. But the firm does not operate any joint ventures with garden centres. A spokesperson explains that Marshalls operates primarily through building supply companies and does not want to threaten this relationship.

"Our relationships are entirely with builders merchants. Some may then have a relationship with garden centres and supply them with our products, but that’s up to them.’

Although these firms all have different ways of working, they all appreciate that despite the general recession there are still people with money to splash around. Landscaping and garden design can bring in wealthy clients to keep the tills ringing even in the toughest economic conditions.

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