Pop-up options

The need to maximise Christmas sales has seen centres trial pop-up stores - and now ice rinks. Ben Cook and Matthew Appleby ask how they fared.

Arena Group: company installed ice rinks in seven garden centres in 2012, with 300sq m the most cost-effective size  - image: Arena Group
Arena Group: company installed ice rinks in seven garden centres in 2012, with 300sq m the most cost-effective size - image: Arena Group

Opinions were divided among garden centres on the need for pop-up stores and attractions over Christmas. Some, such as Bents and Webbs, decided against the initiative, despite having opened pop-ups during previous festive periods. Notcutts, on the other hand, operated two.

Others such as QD Stores, which runs nine Cherry Lane Garden Centres and sells gardening goods in its 40 other discount stores, were keen to open several, but had to scale back their plans due to reluctance on the part of landlords to embrace the idea.

Good performance

QD Stores' pop-up shop at Watton in Norfolk, which operated under the trading name Buyright, performed "ahead of expectations", according to managing director Justin Farrington Smith. QD trialled the concept in 2011 and wanted to operate several last year. But Farrington Smith says that despite QD approaching several landlords, only one decided to open a pop-up store.

Farrington Smith finds it difficult to understand why landlords are reluctant to accommodate pop-up stores. "If a landlord has an empty store, we spruce it up and contribute to the rates or the rent and rates," he says. Farrington Smith adds that QD is currently in negotiations with two landlords and is targeting 12 pop-up shops for next Christmas. But he also says that QD will not restrict the opening of pop-up stores to the festive period and that they could open at any time of year if the company can secure the right deal.

Right location

In contrast, Bents Garden Centre, which had a pop-up store at Liverpool One in 2010 and 2011, decided not to open one last Christmas. Bents Garden & Home managing director Matthew Bent says this was "primarily because we couldn't find the right location". He adds: "Rather than compromise, it was decided to focus all efforts on the Christmas experience at our main Bents store and online shopping experience."

Bents experienced its highest-ever footfall on 2 December, when 9,880 people visited its Cheshire store. The centre also recorded its highest-ever sales figures, with takings of more than £679,000 in the last week of November. Meanwhile, December turnover was 12 per cent up on the same month in 2011, while footfall was 10 per cent up. "On the whole, Christmas performed very well," says Bent. "We are delighted that our efforts paid off."

But despite its success, Bents has not ruled out the possibility of running another pop-up store later this year. Bent says it is something the company would consider "as long as we can find the best location, with enough time to properly schedule the planning and preparation into our Christmas timetable".

Seasonal success

Webbs and Garden & Leisure also decided against opening Christmas pop-ups in 2012, but Notcutts chief executive Andy King has said seasonal shopping centre outlets can still make money with the right approach.

Webbs, which started the trend, had shops in Gloucester and Merry Hill in 2011. Garden & Leisure had pop-ups in Yeovil and The Galleries centre in Bristol.

In Christmas 2010, Notcutts was in Bluewater and Milton Keynes, and in 2011 in Norwich's Chapelfield and Watford's Harlequin centres. In 2012, Notcutts opened pop-ups in Watford and Cambridge's Grafton centre.

King says a mix of high street-style wage control and garden centre-style premium products and fit-outs was the key to success, along with opening at the end of October and closing on Christmas Eve. He adds that this year, in contrast to others that could not find outlets, "fantastic deals were available with landlords".

Understanding your customers' activity

Hitachi Consulting UK retail director Chris Gates, whose advice on retail pop-ups includes ensuring that they have internet ordering kiosks and are staffed by experienced employees, says many retailers face a bleak start to 2013.

Consequently, it is imperative for brands to develop a "strong understanding of consumers shopping preferences". He adds: "Only by understanding the subtle differences in shoppers' spending patterns on a daily basis can retailers optimise the shopping experience and ensure that consumers remain engaged in the buying life cycle."

Gates highlights a recent Hitachi Consulting survey of 1,000 customers which revealed that 90 per cent of customers regularly research products online prior to buying them. It was also found that people are more likely to research online at the beginning of the week and visit stores in person on a Saturday.

By contrast, the research discovered that the propensity to purchase online tends to increase as the week progresses, while the use of mobile apps and catalogues does not vary across the week and tends to be a lot less.

Gates says: "To succeed, retailers need to be aware of how customers are using the various channels to make purchasing decisions, and to ensure that they are able to provide a personalised service that reflects customers' interactions with the brands."

Pop-ups: key advice

Hitachi Consulting retail director Chris Gates advises:

- Add new destinations for click-and-collect services.

- Include internet ordering kiosks.

- Ensure that you have frequent deliveries and some experienced members of staff.

- Check your aim - is it brand awareness, revenue, profit or connecting with new customers?

Ice rinks: a route to seasonal sales success?

Garden & Leisure opened ice rinks at its Cadbury and Huntingdon sites this Christmas, while Webbs hosted an ice rink at its Wychbold site, which offered 45-minute sessions from £5 and remained open until 8 January. Webbs declined to reveal sales figures for the Christmas period, although it was "very pleased with how it (the ice rink) went, but it is still to be decided whether we'd run it again".

Among the garden centres that hosted ice rinks in 2012 were Whitehall Garden Centre, Lacock; Ruxley Manor, Kent; Hilltop Garden Centre, Oxfordshire; Van Hage Great Amwell, Hertfordshire; and Huntingdon Garden & Leisure, Cambridgeshire.

Arena Group supplied seven centres with a full rink service this winter. In total, more than 20 rinks popped up on planterias and hard landscaping retail areas of garden centres this season - almost double the number in 2011. Skating costs £5 a head on average, but additional revenue can be generated through add-ons and catering. A 120sq m rink costs between £50,000 and £60,000 to install, on average.

Arena says a 300sq m rink is the most cost-effective size, with each skater needing about 3sq m. Centres can run up to 10 sessions a day in December and January, attracting more than 1,000 skaters. Rinks generally require about 10 staff.

Boyd Douglas-Davies, managing director of Hilltop's owner, Hillview Group, says its rink attracted almost 10,000 skaters and might return next Christmas. He adds that the rink is also a good marketing tool.

Chessington Garden Centre managing director Jolyon Martin says the circus at the Surrey retailer attracted 8,000 customers this season - more than last year. Chessington has hosted a circus at the centre for the past for five years,but Martin says he was worried about people's stretched disposable income in 2012. Returning customers and the mild weather, however, helped it succeed.

Chessington's grotto targets the same age ranges and Martin says he invested more in it this season because of added local competition from children's venues Chessington World of Adventures and Hobbledown farm. The garden centre's grotto attracted 41,000 people, including 17,500 children. "We won't change our model," adds Martin. "These things take a while to build up and we'll strengthen it year on year." He says the shop floor needs to become "an attraction in itself" because the circus and grotto bring in so many extra people. "It's the restaurant where you make your money."

HTA marketing director Andrew Maxted says: "Feedback from Garden & Leisure and Hillview suggests they have been very pleased with results from ice rinks." He says garden centres had turned to exploiting their own premises better rather than opening pop-ups because of the "changing face of retail". Rents at premium shopping centre locations are beyond their budgets and some secondary shopping centre locations had suffered from tenants leaving, which has led to decreased footfall.

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