GR award winners show skills we need

Faced with the arrival of a prolonged economic downturn, most would agree that while garden retail businesses have consistently demonstrated considerable resilience in previous recessions, to do little more than rely on this fact would be unwise in the extreme.

Instead, the best business owners and managers over the next 18 months will be working harder than ever to find ways to differentiate their businesses from the competition, to discover opportunities to drive footfall, and to spot the openings for growth and expansion that will continue to arise.

This year's Garden Retail Awards, hosted by HW's sister magazine Garden Retail last week at London's Royal Garden Hotel, proved that the sector is more than capable of rising to this challenge.

What's more, the line up of winners at this year's awards served to highlight that it really doesn't matter whether a garden retail outlet is one of the big names, or a much smaller operator or perhaps even a relative newcomer, to excel in any number of the key areas (see pp6-7).

Take Sidmouth Garden Centre, for example. While the big names such as Dobbies and Wyevale Garden Centres took Best Business Development and Best Environmental Policy, Sidmouth swept the board taking Best Concession and Best Customer Service as well as the award for its peer group - Retail Outlet of the Year: Under £3m Turnover.

In an economic climate where garden centres must focus hard on making the most of what they have to offer, customer service - indeed, the whole customer experience - is going to prove critical to centres wanting to maximise sales and return traffic. Sidmouth Garden Centre has proved that in this critical area, size is no barrier.

Says centre manager James Trevitt: "From the day we took over the centre we have had to beg, borrow and steal to create displays. Even our first extension was nothing more than a second-hand glasshouse that came from another centre after closing. The one thing that came naturally to us without great expense was service."

Recognising that staff are at the centre of the customer experience, the good ones aren't allowed to go, says Trevitt. The result is a loyal and appreciative customer base, the overwhelming majority of whom say they would recommend Sidmouth to a friend.

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