Interview - Paul Loft, managing director, Homebase

Gardening is 24 per cent of Homebase's 342-store £1.57bn turnover, making it one of Britain's biggest garden retailers.

Paul Loft, managing director, Homebase - image: HW
Paul Loft, managing director, Homebase - image: HW

Managing director Paul Loft is taking the group from being a DIY specialist towards being a one-stop shop for home enhancement. He was speaking at the launch of a new store concept in Aylesford, Kent, that included a revamped gardening offer.

It features a new layout with greater emphasis on plants and pots, low-level fixtures, garden advice rooms and room sets.

The Jamie Oliver range of bulbs, seeds, plants, compost and barbecues will expand into hand tools, home/giftware and more plants, bulbs and seeds.

Homebase is emphasising its contract to sell branded Bosch/Qualcast mowers and will promote gardening makeovers with "recipes cards" giving ideas for themes.

Q: At whom are you aiming your gardening offer?

A: Our emphasis is on the novice and inexperienced gardener. We're thinking of the garden as a room in the house. In the modern world the garden needs to service gardening, children's play, barbecuing and grow your own. Typically it is not a massive space and people are time pressured. Our job is to make it easy to benefit the end user.

Q: What is the change of emphasis from DIY about?

A: We're shrinking DIY to two-thirds of its size to put in more decor and home improvement.

Q: Why did you decide to use Jamie Oliver?

A: Jamie comes from a food angle and that has a lot of association with grow your own. He has developed new products with his team that are better than what we had.

Q: What are your plans to expand your new gardening offer?

A: To take what we have here and put it into 10-15 stores and test it there, then work out what next. Some fixtures will go into all stores.

Q: Jamie Oliver is an exclusive brand for you. What are your plans for the Jamie Oliver range in 2012?

A: We're doubling it. But we don't want Jamie Oliver splattered over everything. It will be on barbecues and tools, but not cookware and other products. TV was impossible when he was advertising Sainsbury's. We may do advertising with him in the future - that is not precluded. We've witnessed Alan Titchmarsh at B&Q and don't feel we need a Titchmarsh, though he's a good guy to have on TV and we wouldn't rule it out.

Q: How did the Jamie Oliver range go in 2011?

A: It went very well. The odd thing didn't work. Barbecues didn't go as well as grow your own.

Q: How much growth do you see in grow your own?

A: Grow your own continues to increase year on year. But clearly how much more is about how we move it on and make it easy, so gardeners get a good experience.

Q: Are you planning turf installation services?

A: We are running a small-scale test. We're trying to say that at Homebase if you want to do it yourself, fair enough, but if you want someone else to do it, that could be Homebase.

Q: Do you have any other plans for gardening services?

A: We could bring in installation of garden buildings, outdoor play areas and patios. Anything someone needs done and we're interested. In hard landscaping we have a small range. It's more repair and maintenance than installation.

Q: How would you describe the market for you this year?

A: Gardening was up and down. It romped at the beginning with garden furniture and barbecues selling well. Gardening year-round has done well with plant sales. Total garden business is up year on year.

Q: B&Q is rebranding its own brand as Verve. Do you think you will follow suit?

A: Our own brand is staying because Homebase is a strong brand.

Q: Are you doing an RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden in 2012?

A: We hope to. We've done one for the past two years with Tom Hoblyn, though it won't be with him in 2012.

Q: B&Q dropped several grower suppliers this year. Will you do the same?

A: We tend to have a more stable relationship with our growers than B&Q. We tend to give them a lot of business and stay with them. They - and us - may have to take some pain along the journey, but we do that in the spirit of a long-term relationship. We don't chop and change because there is no over-powering cost advantage when you can't buy in China. It's not possible to do it 20 per cent cheaper.


1987: Principles

1990s: Debenhams, Shoe City, Shoe Express

2002: Home Retail Group buys Homebase

2003 to date: Managing director, Homebase.

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