What plans do you have for your presidency?
My largest objective over the next couple of years is getting the regions back up to fighting strength. The GCA should be proud of being a networking opportunity for like-minded members. The conference (Blackpool, 26-29 January) is a great place to meet. The best information is that shared from other like-minded garden centre owners and operators. The strength of the membership is in its uniqueness and making sure members have the chance to get together and discuss what they’re doing well. I want to expand the membership and through stronger regional groups help members get more from membership. In the late 1990s and early 2000s that was very strong so it would be good for that to be reinvigorated.
What are your views on consolidation in the market?
Mixed. The new chief executive officer of the Garden Centre Group [Kevin Bradshaw speaking at 2013’s GCA conference] couldn’t believe how fragmented our industry was. We were surprised because we didn’t think that, because we do things together — we are a mass of independently-owned garden centres. There are still more privately-owned centres than those owned by groups and there’s room for both. I liken it to restaurants. The majority of food is bought from national organisations but the best restaurants are independent. It poses a threat and also an opportunity but because we work together and communicate we help each other meet the challenges.
What is Iain Wylie’s role now that he is full-time chief operating officer?
He’s been pushing GROW [online training] and I’d like to see that continue, and I hope he will be getting the regions stronger and looking for other opportunities for the GCA to move into.
Will they be buying groups or something else?
That idea came and went a few years ago. When you’re dealing with fiercely independent companies, collaborating on that front is quite difficult. But never say never. Iain will look for other opportunities.
Did you sell more or fewer branded goods last year?
I don’t think a lot of garden centres realise how strong their own brand is. It’s often stronger than the brand they’re selling so there are opportunities for garden centres to push own-branded product.
How do you deal with suppliers, given last year’s glut of rejected orders?
We are committed to our bedding and nursery stock growers and always make sure we take everything we say we’re going to take. We perhaps under commit just in case. If people can work with growers on that front it will help everyone. It has to be a shared burden. We were able to hold back pre-ordered stuff but took it in the end. It helps that up north, when it’s cold, stuff doesn’t grow.
How well did your centres [Pennine and Birchencliffe in West Yorkshire] do in 2013?
We were four-to-five per cent up on the previous year.
How were your Christmas 2013 sales?
We had another good Christmas, slightly up on last year but Christmas trees were slightly down. We were up almost four per cent in 2013 overall. It’s a little disappointing sales are not back up to the heady days of 2011 but consumer confidence has to come back. We have to evolve with what the customer wants. Garden centres had done better than many areas of retail, though we could look at the multichannel offers of John Lewis and Next.
How do you see things going over the course of 2014?
Confidence is coming back. The consumer is getting more confident about making committed purchases and I’d like to think that bigger-ticket items will start to go again. More and more are going to the internet with more mundane products — things they don’t want to queue for at the garden centre. They’re coming to the centres for different reasons — leisure, catering and because it’s a nice place to shop. People still want to go to shops. They don’t want to go on the internet. All garden centres are seeing growth in food and we’re selling more instant planted products than ever, though there is a slow decline in bedding.
Will there be any new categories emerging?
No. When you’re coming out of a period of insecurity and things retracting, people go back to tried and tested and what’s safe.
1995 Farm worker, Waikaia Plains Station, New Zealand
1997-98 Sales assistant,
1998-2005 Marketing director/manager, Armitage’s
2006-07 Sales, Round Green Farm Venison Company
2007 to date Managing director, Armitage & Sons
2014 to date President elect, Garden Centre Association (officially takes up office on 26 January)