Top 100 profile - Woodcote Green

Continuous improvements and a committment to quality have seen Woodcote Green Garden Centre in Wallington, Surrey, claim its place high among the Garden Retail Top 100, Matthew Appleby reports.

Woodcote Green Garden Centre: aims to provide good value, exceptional-quality products and high level of customer service
Woodcote Green Garden Centre: aims to provide good value, exceptional-quality products and high level of customer service

Woodcote Green Garden Centre is located on a 12ha site 20km south of London. In 1959, Lawrence Newton planted the first crops on his newly acquired land at Woodmansterne Lane and Woodcote Green opened its doors for the first time. The centre grows its own shrubs and also edible crops for its farm shop and cafes. It aims "to provide good value and exceptional-quality products across a broad range coupled with high levels of customer service".

Woodcote undergoes continuous improvements, with the latest changes including "Reduce, Recycle & Compost" initiatives in which all packaging and crockery at the Waterfall Cafe is now compostable. There is a new natural play area for preschoolers, the indoor and outdoor aquatics departments have combined and there is a lot more home-grown produce being nurtured in Woodcote's nursery for use in the farm shop and restaurants.

Q: How is Woodcote Green Garden Centre changing?

A: Managing director Chris Milan We've been working really hard behind the scenes, concentrating on the west end of Woodcote Green to bring it in line with other improvements we have made around the garden centre. We hope it's more exciting, but we do know it's now easier to shop and access all the different departments, with better pathways, new covered walkways and improved toilet facilities.

I'm really proud that Woodcote Green has embraced even more ecological ideals and customers will see evidence of this all around the garden centre with our "Reduce, Recycle & Compost" initiatives. We're already growing more home-grown produce in the nursery fields to supply our catering departments and the farm shop. It reduces food transport miles and provides fresh, healthy produce, making Woodcote Green more self-sufficient.

The Waterfall Cafe is the first department to have gone really green and eco-friendly. There will be recycling in the truest sense of the word. All the packaging and crockery is now made from sugar bagasse and is compostable via special recycling bins, going back into the soil to help grow crops, or recyclable, giving the materials a new lease of life. We're trying to reduce any negative impact on the environment and much of this is sent to local recycling and processing facilities.

Q: What is the philosophy behind how you run the garden centre?

A: General manager Phil Barnden Garden retail consultant Andy Campbell has worked to help us a lot. We have a plan called the four Ps - place, people, product and process. At different times of the year, each has its particular importance. People tend to put place first because that often costs you a lot of money, but in my view it's not the one that gives you the best retailer. People and process give you the best retail.

You don't want a fantastic looking garden centre with no one in it and no soul, and you don't want a fantastic operation with buildings that are falling down and no one knows where everything is. Everything going on here is in the five-year plan, but you never finish it because as soon as you finish something, something else pops up.

The movement of customers inside the garden centre is very important. We've started to replenish out of hours because we don't want to block pathways and inconvenience customers. Behind the scenes is as important as in the shop. If you're going to grow the business, make sure that you have the processes in place.

It's trying to make sense of it for people because so many garden centres are just a mixed message. They give their best area for franchises. We build, plant, maintain, enjoy, eat and have a catering offer at both ends. At the moment, we're investing in the build and planteria end - it's about balancing the flow otherwise you end up with dead areas if you're not careful.

Hopefully the landscapers don't have to walk through the giftware and the "ladies that lunch" don't have to walk through the fencing area to get to the coffee shops. We don't want to do an Ikea and make them see everything - only the important, tempting products.

Q: What else is important to Woodcote Green's growth?

A: Phil Barnden Full use of the stock-control system and the analyses that this gives us are also key to the garden centre's growth. Our stock turnover is up there with the best of them, if not at the top, and that is something we work hard at. We also work very hard at keeping all areas - both in front of and behind the scenes - organised and tidy. Pretty much everything has a place and that is important to us.

Q: How did the garden centre perform in the early season of 2014?

A: Phil Barnden March was 18 per cent up. We're not selling bird care, which is probably a good thing because it means we're selling a broader range of products. We'd rather be selling plants and core gardening. Better weather this year means there are people all round the garden centre rather than huddled in the warm areas. People have been out in the garden early and you get the extra visit to the garden centre.

Chris Milan In 2013 we had new staff coming in and told them it was going to be busy in the spring. It was, but it was later in spring. This year we hit the ground running.

Q: How has your development helped the staff at Woodcote Green?

A: Phil Barnden Most of our senior managers started with us as school leavers and they're now running £1m-plus divisions. Through all our developments and opportunities in giftware, the coffee shop and the farm shop we've never lost sight of our roots and where we come from. It's really important to us to retain our point of difference - horticulture. We want to be thought of as a really good grower and retailer of plants first and foremost - and a great place to come.

Chris Milan and I started with plants. It's in our blood and the majority of managers have been involved in plants, apart from the catering managers, though they have an interest and a say in what we grow now. That's really important to us.

Q: What do you grow for the farm shop and garden centre now?

A: Phil Barnden We are growing vegetables for the farm shop. We do beetroot, runner beans, sweetcorn and radish, and we can say "freshly picked" and "from Woodcote Green". People know that they can't buy it anywhere else. We like to be as self-sufficient as we can during the peak season of June, July, August, September, and we supplement that with local suppliers.

The crops are grown in local conditions in Wallington. This area started as a lavender production area and all these sites were smallholdings so after World War One they set up as market gardens to grow vegetables to send to London.

We also grow shrubs. This year we're likely to buy in shrubs more than last year because we only ever grow what we are comfortable in selling, so if we get a poor plant season like last year we should be able to sell everything - anymore and it's a bonus.

We do grow what we do well but buy in rhododendrons, azaleas, trees and fruit, for instance. We let someone else grow them who has better conditions and more experience.

Q: What is your view on changes in suppliers after Solus failed to find a buyer in Scotts?

A: Phil Barnden It just shows there's room for one more player in there because if one goes there's more pressure on the others. It is a concern but you have to plan ahead and try and spread your load. Some of us in the trade are careful to try and not put all our eggs in one basket.

We use Westland, Gardman, Scotts, Decco, Solus and also buy direct because if someone runs out of something you want to be able to get it from somewhere else quickly. I feel that we need more independent distribution, particularly for core horticulture products. It has got like utility companies generating electricity and selling it too, and that's not healthy.

Q: Are there any other secrets behind your success?

A: Phil Barnden I know everyone says it, but genuinely all our customers do come first and the team is drilled in this, and in many cases it just comes naturally to them. All the managers including myself and Chris regularly work on the shop floor so we don't forget the most important part of our operation. We don't get it right every time but in most cases we do and hopefully that's why they come back and we continue to grow year on year.

Why it works

Neville Stein, Ovation Business Consultancy

Location is key for most retail business and being situated in an area with a very high-density population has provided this business with an enormous potential customer base. The garden centre is also located in an area where there is a long tradition of horticultural production, developed because of the proximity to London markets. This has spawned a large number of retail nurseries creating a garden retail cluster - a bit like "The Golden Mile" in Crews Hill, Enfield. Having a cluster of similar businesses in one area draws customers from further afield.

While many horticultural businesses in the area have remained small, Woodcote Green has expanded over the years and with the recent development - a new cafe and food hall - the garden centre has a substantial offering while retaining a very strong horticultural element to the business.

But as with many businesses, the key to success lies with the leaders and managers in the company. Led by the very capable Chris Milan and assisted by one of the UK's finest garden retail managers Phil Barnden, the business has developed a strong customer-focused ethos, offered innovate services such as the "Express Dive Thru" compost service and consistently delivers excellent value for money.

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