The Dobbies experience has changed the way people think about building garden centres, according to Malcolm Scott Consultants owner Malcolm Scott. Few have been built since Dobbies expanded rapidly with new builds in the 2000s, which petered out by 2013 and saw plans for a joint Tesco/Dobbies at East Kilbride halted and a write-down of £48m of assets in 2015.
Scott said Dobbies "grossly overspent" on buildings compared to the amount it could make per square metre. There was a "mismatch" between garden centre operators saying gardening and plants are very important to their offer and the amount they can turnover annually from selling horticulture, he added.
"That cannot be the case if you are operating from a building of that expense because it won't pay for itself. If you believed gardening was your premier operation you wouldn't build like Dobbies did. You'd build a nice restaurant building and gardening would be in a much lower-grade building, and plants would be in a polytunnel structure."
Scott said the only way to make money from the quality buildings built by Dobbies is to fill them with concessions and argued that operators have got to tell architects to "back off" and plan a building appropriate for the sales achievable. Most garden centres he works on now are to improve existing structures or add restaurants.
He added that garden centre catering has to be "different" from the high street or department store, where the offer is improving, citing his new restaurant at Garsons as an example. He warned that conferences can give retailers too high expectations of what they can achieve.
"There will be new builds but they cannot be led by investors wanting fancy pictures to put on the front of a prospectus and architects who don't understand the economics of garden centres.
Malcolm Scott Consultants has now joined Harris Lamb's team of surveyors and planners. This will enable the company to continue offering planning advice to clients but will add the option of introducing "high covenant strength retail concessions, sale and lease back expertise, and with an enhanced planning team offering more potential for unlocking garden centre sites for housing, retail or leisure developments". Malcolm Scott Consultants will retain its own identity and staff.
- Although there are still three or four other parties in the race to buy Dobbies, Wyevale Garden Centres, under Guy Hands' Terra Firma private equity group, remains the front runner to take over the Tesco-owned chain, sources suggest. The sale is due to complete at the end of May.