Both Garden Centre Group (GCG) and Dobbies have been through big changes in the past couple of years, but now the two biggest names in the garden retail industry have their plans in place for the future.
Formerly Wyevale, GCG has been through different owners and avoided succumbing to a £360m debt under chief executive officer Nicholas Marshall's refinancing with the Bank of Scotland, after his appointment by the 120-centre chain in September 2008.
Dobbies, meanwhile, may be smaller than GCG with just 25 stores, but the Edinburgh-headquartered chain has ambitious plans for 100 centres each turning over £10m by 2018, following its takeover by Tesco in August 2007 for £155m. Perhaps surprisingly, the plans of each differ in several important areas, including training, buying, expansion and membership schemes.
Dobbies and GCG differ widely in how much responsibility is devolved to store managers. Dobbies chief executive James Barnes says: "We're going more and more centralised on that. It should allow the management team to focus on service and the customer rather than what's coming into the warehouse."
However, GCG chief executive Nicholas Marshall says: "They buy pretty well everything. I've given them it back, and quite rightly. I've been saying this for 20 years, then I lost all the centres" - a reference to Wyevale's aggressive buy-out of his Country Gardens chain in 2000.
"Customers in Hastings, Henley and Heighley Gate are not the same. Managers are very much in charge of their stock now. My whole thing about managing garden centres is you have to be entrepreneurial. We do have a plant list and a list of nurseries with agreed prices and volumes, but then it's up to individual centres to order stock. New introductions have suggested ordering levels and there may be initial stock fill on that but from then on it's up to them."
"E-learning is the biggest thing we've ever done," says Marshall. "Existing training is completely inadequate." A common charge laid at the chains is that staff are poorly trained. Marshall says that rather than lengthy, expensive and often boring group training sessions, the e-learning system can motivate and educate staff as well as drive business.
He says the RHS and other horticulture exams are "not targeted at garden centre people. We must do this on our own so we end up with the best. We want everyone singing form the same hymn sheet." More than 4,700 GCG employees have now accessed the e-learning system, completing modules in basic horticulture, grow your own, customer service and health and safety since the scheme's launch on 10 May.
All catering staff have also completed online level 2 food hygiene as well as mandatory online fire awareness training. Marshall also wants to get his 1.1 million garden club members involved, with modules they can take at home to help them learn more about gardening.
Dobbies also has ambitious plans for training, with all plant staff and 50 per cent of total staff to be horticulturally trained in the next 12-18 months. "We recognise a major part of the future is upskilling staff in horticulture. It's the biggest piece of training we've ever done," says Barnes.
"We've eight training modules, developed it internally with some outside help and tailored to the products we sell. They cover plant identification and knowledge, sundries and, for instance, treatments for black spot. Staff can do HTA qualifications as the next level. The HTA does a very good job there but if we want to develop our own people we need to have our own because we can tailor modules to include products and plants that fit our range."
Barnes is committed to rapid expansion of Dobbies. "Wanting 100 centres in a decade has been in place since 2006 - it's nothing new. We have seven to eight years to run and we will have to accelerate, naturally, but absolutely that is the plan," he explains.
"We have four on the ground, four with planning permission and others pending. We have a small property team that goes up to director level. New sites are fundamental to what we do. Our existing business is 50/50 acquisition and greenfield. We wouldn't rule out smaller centres, but the full formula of 45-50,000sq feet as at Aberdeen we know works."
He sees the current economic and political situation as favourable. "Wealth creation and economic development are higher up planning agendas in recession," he says. "We hope that embeds in planning because without it UK PLC grinds to a halt. Job creation needs to be taken into account as part of the planning process. We could turn over £600m-£700m, maybe more, from new sites and driving sales from existing sites."
GCG, at 120 stores, does not have any current expansion plans but instead is revamping every store with new toilets, restaurants, benching, entrances through planterias and even new store names. The group continues to open allotments on spare land alongside garden centres.
Gosforth near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for example, has 150 plots. Marshall is advocating the "one-third, one-third, one-third" centre, with income split between horticulture, catering and concessions.
GCG's store innovations include revamped and new pizza/pasta restaurants, many with adjoining soft play areas, while Pizza Express-style menus are being launched at three stores in January 2011. "Cooking rather than microwaving attracts better staff," says Marshall. "Let's get cooking as opposed to buying in and heating up."
Meanwhile, farm shops selling local produce and tied to restaurants are important to Dobbies and are planned for all new builds, says Barnes. He adds that catering is now around 20 per cent of the chain's turnover - high for the industry.
"Farm shops are very popular with our customers," he points out. "We bake on site with up to five bakers working. It's important to have connectivity between restaurant, bakery and food. Punneted strawberries were our biggest-selling line in the business, with 129,000 sales at £1.99 in a year.
"We also use local brands - Walkers Shortbread, Robson's Tweedside Honey, Andrew's Aberdeenshire Honey. But with farm shops you need to be very patient. It's a slow burn and margins are a lot less, though we will be profitable in year one at Aberdeen."
Gardening club memberships at GCG now stand at 1.1 million, while Dobbies has seen membership of its scheme jump 50 per cent to 60,000 over the past 16 months. "The significant thing we have done is pass one million gardening club customers," says Marshall. "It's very exciting. We think there are another million to go next year."
GCG gardening club members earn five reward points for every £1 spent in the garden centre and online. These bring vouchers that can be redeemed at all participating garden centres. Members receive exclusive seasonal offers and invitations to preview events. One such was on Easter Sunday earlier this year, when garden centres are not usually allowed to open.
GCG's scheme is free to join, while Dobbies, which charges £12 a year, now wants to link to parent company Tesco's Clubcard, the biggest loyalty card in the UK. "Our members are our most valued customers and the ones with the highest spend. They are our ambassadors," says Barnes. "There may be potential for a relationship with Clubcard. We're keen to investigate possibilities. There are endless ways it might work that would benefit both parties."
GCG, a national chain, does not have many issues about local sourcing as Dobbies, which is still largely Scotland-based. But Marshall still wants staff to look locally for top ups.
Dobbies' top-selling line in June was strawberries, with customers catching Wimbledon fever as Scot Andy Murray progressed at the tennis tournament. "Our home-grown plant supply has grown also in absolute terms and if you include food it has grown exponentially," says Barnes.
"We are spending more on buying plants from Scotland, particularly if you include Christmas trees. We are keen wherever possible to source plants from the north rather than the south because they are hardier, and that will continue in 2011-12 because we are opening more Scottish stores."
He adds that Dobbies' success on home turf has not been at the expense of other retailers. "We will have grown the Scottish market," he maintains. "Klondyke has the same number of centres as us, mostly in Scotland, and it's had like-for-like growth. The total Scottish market has grown."