Top 100 profile - Scotsdales Garden Centre

In the first of a series highlighting the industry's top performers taken from our exclusive Garden Retail Top 100 listing, Matthew Appleby turns the spotlight on Scotsdales Garden Centre in Cambridge.

Scotsdales: the garden centre’s planteria is still seen as a core strength by the management and the main reason for its customers to visit the store
Scotsdales: the garden centre’s planteria is still seen as a core strength by the management and the main reason for its customers to visit the store

Garden Retail Top 100-Spotlight profile

Scotsdales Garden Centre, which features high up in the Garden Retail Top 100, was opened more than 40 years ago by David Rayner in Great Shelford, Cambridge. His daughter Caroline Owen has been managing director for 29 years. She received the lifetime achievement prize in the 2013 Garden Retail Awards and is the HTA's immediate past president.

Q: Do you have any downtime after the busy Christmas period?

A You don't have a quiet time now because you do Christmas and when you're putting it away you're buying it again. Then you're off into the season. Gone are the days when you'd struggle to find things to do in January and February.

Q: What are you doing to improve your Christmas sales?

A Christmas was eight per cent up. As a traditional garden centre, we haven't done Christmas well until three years ago. Now we take some garden care space out and we're coming from a lower base. Our Christmas percentage is still not big enough but you can't change that overnight. Total sales for Christmas are six per cent, which I think is too low. Real trees were very good - up 4.5 per cent, which I put down to our service. We'll un-net up to eight trees and we'll deliver. I don't want to put a tree in my car and I don't think my customers do either. We compete with Waitrose down the road so I'm not unhappy with that figure.

Q: How do you compete with Waitrose entering the garden market?

A: Waitrose is concerning. They just make shopping very easy and my concern is losing the customer visit. If someone buys a David Austin rose, for instance, at Waitrose, we lose the visit, not just the purchase of the rose. Some garden centres have competition that we don't have but I do see competition from supermarkets as concerning because that's where the customer regularly visits.

I don't think there's anything we can do. Their prices are good and they make it easy for people to buy outside the shop. We just have to make sure that everything we do is right. I don't necessarily think that price is an issue - and it is convenience, not choice, they do best.

Q: What do your plans for the future involve at Scotsdales?

A: We have an improvement plan. We have planning permission to build a new storage facility and a new hard landscaping area, to extend the outside retail area and move our cafe and redo it completely. Moving the cafe releases retail space for clothing and the cafe. We have to put up a marquee for six months a year to cope at the moment. Our cafe is too small for the size of garden centre we are.

It's too small because we're becoming more of an entertainment business, cafe, Father Christmas, grotto, talks - particularly relevant over the past two years when the gardening season has not been good. Cafe takings are 11 per cent of overall business. We're very strong with core gardening and plants, and still punch above our weight on that side of the business when you measure against other garden centres. But I would like to get catering up to 15 per cent.

We have three centres - we're a group. We're landlocked at Scotsdales so expansion is limited. There is an appetite to go to smaller stores and people are already visiting all three. The three are different offers - the cafe offer is different, for instance. Scotsdales isn't as big as Bents or Barton Grange, but some customers find it quite daunting to come to a big retailer. Fordham is in a village. The plan is to develop a bigger centre at Soham instead of Fordham, maybe in 2015. There will be some planning gains - housing - at Fordham we could realise if we wanted.

Q: How do you manage to retain your local market share?

A: We work hard at our customer base and loyalty and we'll go the extra mile for our customers. We have family values that mean something to our staff and customers. Where you have a strong independent garden centre it's difficult for any multiple to compete against because it could change anything over night - take the price down or up. I've got complete flexibility. We have a big market share in Cambridge and with the purchase of the Notcutts site at Horningsea last year that will increase. We're doing the planteria there completely because we still see that as the core strength and reason to visit, and we're revamping the cafe starting on 10 February to finish on 1 March. That centre remains open but the planteria is closed.

Q: How will the shake-up of Solus, Gardman and the formation of Crest impact you?

A: The change in the supplier market is bound to have an impact. We've always worked very well with the wholesaler Solus, with two deliveries a week and a rep call once a week. Nick Davies leaving won't change that but Westland is a company we've worked with well, as we have with Solus, and if Crest came out with a sundries/garden care range we'd have to look at that seriously. It will be 2015 before anything happens. Smart Solar with Paris Natar, they will be out with a range of gardening products at Glee. Nick Davies and Crest/Westland, a broader market and more competition will be good for the retailers because they will have a choice but we won't ignore our consistent and good suppliers necessarily for someone new. We'd still want to keep Burgon & Ball, for instance. The suppliers all do a lot of bird care, which is a nice product for garden centres to sell, but with the mild weather this year the sales have not been there. But we still do £0.5m at Scotsdales, which is bigger than compost. We do £125,000 on solar lighting and £100,000 on books, for comparison.

Q: How do you go about finding the money you need to expand?

A: We're fortunate as an established business with no borrowing, so it's not difficult. We'll take some borrowing for expansion, but it's not a concern.

Q: What other issues are you currently facing as a business?

A: People think you should be an expert in everything and we have to be, albeit on a small scale. So we have to make sure cafe standards, health and safety and HR are where they should be. That's a challenge but it is only right that we do.

Q: What opportunities have you been able to identify in the market?

A: There is a big opportunity in our market not yet explored with corporate social responsibility. People like British Airways would bite your hand off to have the things we have - closer to nature, bees, butterflies, trees, garden wildlife, well-being, exercise, outdoor life, family life, less waste, home grown, home composting - but you won't find us telling anyone about it. That's another thing we'll be doing more in 2015. The bird category is very important but we're not telling anyone out there about it. As an industry we're just not promoting anything like that hard enough - local suppliers, British plants. Some garden centres are but we're not. It's a very passive sell. If people feel good about what they're buying, that's good for us.

Q: What are the prospects for the market in the coming year?

A: After two poor gardening years, 2014 will see growth in gardening back to the 2011 golden year. We could get that back easily if we have good March/April/May figures. It will help with Easter being later but with the bank holidays closer together retailers and suppliers will have to work hard to get the supply chain right and we see growth coming in the cafe and Christmas, which we will improve.

We don't have a big enough car park for an ice rink but maybe a circus - anything that provides entertainment. We might have a Christmas light display. In 2013 we had a reindeer evening, which was incredibly successful. Customer evenings are really successful. We're now becoming an entertainment business so we have to provide theatre and entertain customers with quirky, lovely staff and give them something to look at.

Q: What does the HTA have lined up for the immediate future?

A: The HTA has the "It Starts with a Pot" campaign, which hopefully everyone can get behind. When you look at our sales from last year, instant and container gardening were very much a growth area. We've produced point of sale to do it Waitrose-style and make it easier for our customers. We have a lot of younger people who want to come into gardening and they have no idea how. All the products are together and there's a big poster saying buy these and you achieve this.

The (HTA-led) Garden Industry Marketing Board is designed to get the industry to speak with one voice but it still has a little way to go. The aim is to get a TV campaign to increase gardening, but it's in its infancy - a campaign the whole industry will buy into. People have to look outside the box. If you look at new housing, all they have is space for a pot.

The best thing about it is the industry is now talking to each other. Before it was really hard but now the HTA, Garden Centre Association, Garden Industry Manufacturers Association, RHS, BALI - everyone's talking to each other and exchanging views and ideas.

Q: Finally, what are your plans personally for the future?

A: I've been here 29 years but there won't be change for the next five years. My daughter Becky runs Fordham and the long-term plan is for her to stay with the business. My brother Ben Rayner is 13 years younger and also with the business, so there's lots of younger input.

Why it works - Neville Stein, Ovation Business Consultancy

The garden centre is very well managed with a very committed team. Notably, Jonathan Savage does a fantastic job at managing the planteria. The previous planteria manager, Peter Jackson, was very well-known in the area and is now used by the company to give solid gardening advice and has had slots on the radio.

It also has hard-working, dedicated and visionary leaders. I think that part of the success is due to its location and size. It is in one of the wealthiest towns in East Anglia. The demographics are favourable for garden centres - there are a lot of middle-class customers who own their own homes.

Much of the housing stock, particularly on the edge of the town, would be fairly old and therefore have larger gardens than new-build properties. The town is prosperous, house prices remain high and the universities provide loads of employment. All good news if you have a garden centre in the town - even better news if you are the only significant player in the region.

There really is not a huge amount of direct competition. Notcutts used to have a centre on the other side of town, but way out of town. Scotsdales, sensibly, bought it.

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