Bents Garden & Home is a family-run award-winning garden centre in Cheshire that started life in the early 1950s as a rose nursery before developing into a retail outlet with a well-known restaurant and pioneering Christmas trade. It also features the innovative Open Skies covered planteria. New developments include a children's play area as well as a pet shop, cafe, allotments, concessions and food hall in a 3,000sq m development that is currently being built.
Q. What new developments are underway at the centre?
Managing director Matthew Bent Phase two of Bents' vision for the future is now underway. It started in January 2014. Over the past 18 months we've made car park improvements, built a children's play area, landscaped the lake and built a birds of prey attraction.
We're now starting work on environmental gardens and community initiatives including allotments on land across from us, along with a new roundabout. We'll have a new cafe and extended food hall plus children's boutique doubled in size and an extended pet care department including a grooming room and pet cafe.
Where the food hall is currently located there is going to be a new servery point because on really busy days we simply cannot cope with the amount of people coming through the doors, so we need another point. We're going to have an extra 100 seats when it's finished.
Q. Which other catering areas have potential for growth?
A big growth area is afternoon tea - it's a great opportunity. In the evening we open until 8-9pm during the week and if we can develop that evening trade it would be great. But it's been traditionally quite difficult to get people in the evening. However, we would love to crack evenings. We peak at lunch so we're looking outside those hours, trying to develop catering.
Q. Why did you decide to undertaking this development?
We are now developing the centre to move us towards a full destination store. We can't rely on gardens or Christmas to bring people in year round and our restaurant and food help keep people coming in on wet days. It's about flattening the curves so as a business we don't have massive peaks and troughs like other garden centres that rely on the gardening side.
Q. How important does gardening remain to you?
Matthew Bent Even though we're a big centre and the percentage of gardening and plants has decreased over the years - plant sales figures have not increased from 10 years ago - we still see it as a big reason people come to us.
Chairman Ron Bent Open Skies has been a godsend over the past couple of years. People who go outside and get rained on very rarely go back out after it stops and they give up because they've lost the initiative. People now browse plants as well, like they have always browsed the shop, which is what we always wanted.
We want to enhance the nursery and develop it. We're not giving up on gardening - in fact, we're investing more in it. We were one of the first to do catering and Christmas. What will be the next one? The food hall is growing rapidly and anything to do with leisure.
We attract people more as a leisure destination - a day out, a few hours at Bents. The longer they stay, the more likely they are to buy something. We started as rose growers in the 1950s, then shrubs diversified, then had a garden shop and a garden centre in the 1960s. We just evolved from a rose nursery into where we are today. We still have roots in the old industry but we realise to be a business like we are now year round we have to flatten the curves in the season.
Q. When do you expect to open the new development?
Phase one will open towards the end of the year in time for our busy Christmas period. Adding more retail space is a big thing and that is also adding to the appeal. We know that the food hall and farm shop are huge growth areas and big pulling factors for customers to come to us all year round.
We've seen at Barton Grange and at other places what a difference a really good farm shop and butcher can make. Other potential big areas of growth are the pet boutique, kitchenware and the children's boutique, which will sell clothing and toys and be a real boutique shop. There will be a lot of shops within shops run by us.
Q. What is your view on having concessions in garden centres?
A. If we cannot do as well as other people or someone outside in the market, then we will get someone else to do it. If you believe that you can do a great job, do it yourself. Only concession difficult areas you that can't do. Our new development will have two potential concessions.
Q. How much of your business is made up by internet sales?
Internet sales are very small for us. For us our website is more of a catalogue for our customers. They can check what we've got in stock and decide to come down or check what our roasts are, for instance. At the Garden Centre Association conference they said 70 per cent of customers research online before they visit.
Facebook and social media are all about that interaction with the customer and are much more than just selling the business. We want customers to come to us and get more of the Bents experience. We'd like to sell more online but we'd like to attract them to this site.
Q. Do you see supermarkets such as Waitrose targeting garden retail as threats?
Matthew Bent You can look at it in two ways. Is it appealing to customers to whom we do not appeal? They get into gardening and when they get the bug they come to garden centres to get the best information. Or you can see them as a real threat that are going to take away our customers who would mostly shop with us. Next is good at what they do, appealing to colour senses. If they can get more people into gardening, that's fantastic.
Ron Bent They raise the price expectation. Asda and B&Q sell on price but Next and Waitrose sell at a more realistic price. Us garden centres are felt to be expensive and because of them it's now felt that we're not.
Matthew Bent Supermarket shopping is something that you have to do. Garden centres are something that you would want to do. Anyone can order online but for an actual experience people want to come along and have nice food in a nice environment, combined with great products and service as well as something different that you can always find.
Ron Bent Independent garden centres need to push that they're family independent businesses. It's a big thing - everyone wants to support local business and local trade here.
Q. How does the nursery work with the garden centre?
Ron Bent We're able to supply large volumes of potted containers. We can change what we grow very quickly and change tack if there's big demand. Sometimes it's hard to find certain herbaceous lines so we grow them. Our weigela and forsythia we grow bigger in a four-litre pot.
Q. How do you go about finding new and unusual products?
Matthew Bent Just by going to as many shows as possible. It's much harder on the gardening side to find different products. It's about trying to find little stands at Spring Fair and Glee, and sometimes taking a punt on things.
Ron Bent Most people who go into the garden centre now aren't knowledgeable gardeners. HTA research shows people want different things from their gardens. That's why we have to attract people for the other reasons. The restaurant brings in non-gardening people. The thing is getting them over the doorstep. The play area increased restaurant turnover in July and August, traditional down months. In 1981 we opened our first cafe. People came in, bought what they wanted and left. But people only buy plants four or five times a year. They eat and drink every day. Once they're here we can sell them something else. Mums meet and have lunch here. It's a nice safe environment and parking is easy.
Why it works
Neville Stein, Ovation Business Consultancy
Bents has always been a pioneer in the UK garden retail scene. It appears to me that it always has an eye on the future, evidenced by the reinvestment that the second generation of Bents has continually undertaken. Reinvesting profits back into the business though is not just about infrastructure at Bents but also staff training, improving the experience for the customer and marketing. The website is fantastic, easy to navigate and really gets across the message about Bents' quality.
Improvements led by mystery shopper programme
Bents has devised a new mystery shopper programme that it believes is "quite a revolutionary approach for the garden centre industry, moving away from the 'pretend shopper' approach and focusing on actual customers, ensuring the team at Bents can respond to direct feedback and make any necessary changes straight away".
The centre can now generate direct feedback from 3,600 customers per year. Having worked with a traditional mystery shopper programme, which measured service levels based on predetermined questions and situations, Bents wanted to radically transform the situation and generate direct feedback from actual customers by asking what they consider to be good service.
Bents and Shopper Anonymous have launched the programme, which is split into three distinct categories with data collected three times per month.
Customer service manager Dawn Chalmers says: "We wanted to create a completely new initiative that would allow us to engage more closely with our customers. The new programme provides us with the opportunity to generate direct feedback, helping us to respond quickly and effectively to whatever comments are put forward. It is already proving very beneficial to the business and our customers both in terms of immediate service levels and future planning."
The new programme involves: an on-site audit that checks basic service standards such as parking, trolleys and cleanliness; a telephone survey; and exit surveys with customers involving three simple questions about their experience. This ends by asking if there was one thing they could change about Bents, what would it be?
"We are empowering the customer - allowing them to give direct feedback about their visit that is immediately fed back to the management team and, if needed, we can act straight away," says Chalmers.
Bents has already been approached by other leading brands with a request to share information and feedback on the new programme.