New designs on garden centre experience

As centres compete with major retailers Matthew Appleby looks at where plants fit into the overall design.

Garden centre design could be at a crossroads, as high street standards become the norm and leaky glasshouses full of plants are considered a thing of the past.

Many centres have moved away from their horticultural roots, with a broader range of goods and services for sale. These mean better year-round sales but centres could risk losing some of garden retail's unique homespun charm, say some garden centre consultants.

A recent news article suggested clothing and home retailer Next may open garden centres in Ikea-style out-of-town stores. Next denies this but Paul Pleydell, director of design consultancy Pleydell Smithyman, says such a move opens up an interesting debate.

"For many years garden centres looked to the high street to hone their retail skills. It seems the tide is turning and the major retailers are now looking at garden centres, one of the more successful retail sectors in the past couple of years, and seeking to emulate our winning approach. Effectively they are diversifying their offer and introducing cafes - sounds familiar."

He adds: "I feel that the market is poised for a big shift, with a separation between the retail giants that will answer to shareholders and the smaller independents that must be focused on the experience they provide if they are to survive."

Masterplanner Malcolm Scott owner Malcolm Scott (HW, 19 November) is worried that garden centre owners will find it more difficult to get planning permission if their centres look less like gardening destinations and more like slick John Lewis-style department stores.

"We say we can't roll back time," he says. "Plants sell from March to June and a bit in September and October so that's four or five months a year. We know garden centres must sell other things."

He adds that with houseplant sales lost to supermarkets, plants are less likely to be to the fore in garden centres.

Scott introduced a green centre design arm, Ecocore, a few years ago and more recently his latest dome concept, "Live Nature". The dome has a glass insert at the front where trees and landscape form an integral part of the building.

Scott says: "It's not car park, then shop and then finally plants. That's crazy because if you wanted a new car you wouldn't expect to park and walk through accessories and car mats and find cars at the back."

New concepts in greener and more garden-focused designs have emerged recently. Scott cites the Garden Centre Group's Bicester flagship store and says: "They are doing a brilliant job (opening entrances through planterias) but can only do that on older sites. Bicester remains a John Lewis lookalike. Our new concept works from the start."

Scott says Dobbies' Aberdeen blueprint "is old box style with plants pushed to the back", while "you can see Van Hage Peterborough style in boutique hotels, health spas and restaurants with wood and stone used to evoke nature. Why use wood and stone when you are nature if we only let it through the roof." He explains: "If Dobbies' model is good for them then good luck to them, but we shouldn't slavishly follow it."

Scott adds that Bents' Thermoflor glasshouse is "brilliant" for securing year-round plant sales where "height is critical".

He says Hayes' Eden Project-style dome - "though lower because we don't need the height"

- is a "halfway house" towards his plant-focused concept. "It's important that garden centres have their own style. I don't see any future in mimicking each other. When we're back into (economic) recovery, the industry should be looking at this model."

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