Garden centre owners are increasingly marketing their stores as destination shopping experiences and Christmas represents a golden opportunity to take big money away from the high street and show new customers what they have to offer over the rest of the year.
Where once it was enough to take your child for a visit to see Father Christmas, a modern Christmas experience is aimed at the whole family and likely to include feeding the reindeer, a photo shoot, lunch or tea with Santa, ice skating, a circus or funfair and hot snacks or mulled wine.
While big-city dwellers may visit a park for their hit of Christmas cheer, it is increasingly the garden centre that fulfils this function in our towns, countryside and suburbia. Unlike the high street, garden centres can offer more space, car parking, an easier visit for young children and older people alike and good disability access.
Frosts Garden Centres employs professional actors for its 45-minute "Santa's grotto experience" and thinks of its offering as an immersive theatrical performance. Visitors make "magic reindeer food" to sprinkle outside their houses on Christmas Eve and learn a Christmas song before enjoying story time with Santa and a visit to his toyshop, where they can choose from 40 different presents.
Speaking just before Christmas, Frosts Group marketing manager Gabbie Robinson said: "We've had a record-breaking year. At Woburn Sands we've had 18,000 people go through our grotto, at Millets Farm just under 15,000 and at Willington around 12,000 - we're about 40 per cent up on last year."
The company has ice rinks and grottos at three of its four garden centres and offers other experiences such as tea with Santa and wreath making at its smaller fourth site. This year it doubled its capacity at Millets Farm to 120 skaters per session while at Woburn Sands it is up to 120 from 90 in 2012.
"We're now being seen as a Christmas destination," added Robinson. "There are not many places where people can go where it's all under one roof." She said garden centres have the upper hand on the high street because Christmas is not compartmentalised in a garden centre.
"Everything we do is experience-based. It's not like the high street where you pay to go and see Santa for two minutes. We do Christmas on a big scale and when you come to one of our sites at Christmas, you really know it's Christmas."
A theatrical experience is also the aim of the Garden & Leisure Group, where Christmas sales are up by 15 per cent since 2011. "Our whole Christmas event is very theatrical," said marketing director John Moseley in the run-up to the holidays.
"This year we had a fairy-story theme featuring 2.5m-high books at the focal point of each theme. As well as the grotto we have breakfast and tea with Santa. Garden centres are moving more in line with the high street as they offer so much more. People want a family day out and it's incredibly important."
Preparations at the company begin at the end of June with a mock-up of the Christmas-themed areas. An in-house set builder starts work on the Christmas area in stores at the beginning of September in space vacated by barbecues and garden furniture, with the help of the company's graphic designers. In September it launches Christmas to 600,000 customers in a leaflet drop and to its club card database via email with a discount day and evening in mid October.
The company held a Christmas tree festival for the first ten days of December 2013, with sales of trees up on the previous year. Sales of artificial trees increased by 29 per cent over two years, sales of lights rose by 35 per cent and grotto visitors were up by 31 per cent.
Offering Christmas experiences is definitely "worth it", said Moseley. "We probably do more in December than we do in May. Visitor numbers have been 25 per cent up since we brought the grottos back in house and the 'image me' photography has been a substantial revenue driver.
"Christmas sales excluding trees represent 10 per cent of our total turnover. The footfall brings huge returns on all other aspects of the business and we typically pull customers from twice the normal drive time so bounce-back promos are important for January.
He is not the only one. At Frosts, Robinson said the Christmas offerings attract new customers every year and they will come back to stock up in the spring. Some garden centres offer seedling Christmas trees in the grotto package but HW columnist and schools gardening champion Peter Seabrook has called for them to go further and for Santa packages to include seeds or cactus pads or even potting sessions to encourage youngsters to get into gardening from an early age.
Baytree Nurseries & Garden Centre owner Reinhard Biehler has been in the game for three decades, bringing a flavour of Bavarian Christmas markets from his homeland to Spalding in Lincolnshire when he established his own nursery there.
Also speaking last month, Biehler said plant sales - never great at this time of year - are shrinking but his Christmas offering only grows. He started off with one Santa and now has four. As at Frosts, visitors enjoy a visit of several stages, including photographs with a baby yeti, a train trip and a visit to the reindeer for £8.50 for children and £1.50 for adults. In December, the attraction had two-hour queues at weekends and 80 per cent of centre revenue was non-plant related.
"It went extremely well, a little too well - we were struggling over the weekends," added Biehler. "It does pull a lot of people and works extremely well this time of year. We have a winter wonderland with 20-30ft firs, a fairground with a German Christmas market including kiosks selling hot donuts and gluhwein, we have a big Christmas area in the garden centre and a restaurant - it creates a good atmosphere. I don't think we could survive without it. It doesn't matter what the weather is like, people come."
Key sales period
In December, Ovation Business Consultancy managing director Neville Stein said the increasing prevalence of Christmas extras in garden retail "makes absolute sense", and November and December are becoming the most significant months of the year for garden retailers as well as in other retail sectors.
"The theme this year has been about weatherproofing your business and one of the best ways to do that is to maximise on Christmas," he explained. "Retailers have had a challenging year due to unreliable weather. People haven't sold plants as much as before. I've seen people upping their game in terms of adding the extra value and making Christmas about entertainment. I've seen a lot of creativity this year. A lot of people are having great ideas and making a huge amount of effort."
Stein said businesses have to decide whether to operate grottos to draw people into their centres, or for charity, or to make money as well. He pointed out that circuses, grottos and ice rinks are big money-making events because centres can sell tickets in advance and make extra money on sales of drinks and food.
According to British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) chairman Ian Riggs, "occasion features" such as those at Christmas at garden centres can be truly spectacular but growers are the losers because plant sales represent a shrinking percentage of turnovers during these periods.
Last month he said: "With their available space, garden centres can create novel large displays far in excess in design, size and scope than those of high street retailers and the grocery multiples. As plant sales continue to represent a falling attraction and diminishing percentage of centre turnovers, growers are not in a strong position.
"This is reflected in garden centre design, where space has to justify capital spend and investment. A restaurant and mall of franchises is a draw and revenue generator whatever the weather, whereas planteria revenue potential is weather-dependent." With the range of plants available in garden centres under pressure, some growers are turning to the internet to sell to consumers directly, he added.
The British Christmas Tree Growers Association will not know full details of Christmas tree sales until later on this month, but secretary Harry Brightwell has said early indications show sales are approximately the same as last year - around six million trees.
However, Riggs added that his tour of some of the larger south coast garden centres the weekend before Christmas showed that live Christmas trees were in short supply, with many sites sold out.
"The most popular plant purchases seemed to be, in order, poinsettias, cyclamen and red begonia elatior," he reported. "Growers seem comfortable with the amount of crops they grew and it also appears that residue stock levels will be very low or nil."
Display award winners
The Gardens Group's Castle Gardens in Sherborne, Dorset, has been announced as the overall winner in the garden centre category in the Garden Centre Association's Christmas display awards for 2013.
Judges were wowed by the displays at Castle Gardens that allowed visitors to travel through 1970s-themed rooms, Peter Pan's bedroom and end up in front of the judges from Strictly Come Dancing.
Louise Burks, managing director and head of Christmas at the Gardens Group, said: "We're so pleased to have won the national awards. Our team works hard on the Christmas displays and every member of staff gets involved to help make sure the displays look their absolute best."
Meanwhile. Bents Garden & Home in Cheshire scooped the Garden Centre Association's overall award in the destination garden centre category.
Both centres will be officially crowned at the association's annual conference due to be held in Blackpool on 26-29 January.
- North West Bents and All in One Garden Centre.
- South Thames Region Ransoms Garden Centre, Jersey Gardens and Castle Gardens.
- Wales & West Area Endsleigh in Devon and Raglan Garden Centre in Wales.
- North Thames Region Van Hage Great Amwell and Sunshine Garden Centre.
- North East Armitage's Pennine Garden Centre and Armitage's Birchencliffe Garden Centre.
- Midlands Van Hage Peterborough in Cambridgeshire and St Peters Garden Centre in Worcestershire.