Being sited in an urban area puts a garden centre literally at the heart of a community. True, there is huge pressure on space, but for many this is a blessing in disguise because the absence of major destination garden centres has allowed a diverse range of smaller individual outlets to flourish.
"Urban gardens tend to be on the small side but there are a lot packed together so you have a high density of potential customers," says Tony Challis, co-owner of Ginkgo Garden Centre in west London, where the customers tend to fit the "cash-rich, time-poor" category.
"They also have a higher propensity to spend relative to the area they have," he adds. "City gardeners like to have a courtyard garden and we sell a good deal of pre-planted containers and hanging baskets.
"The city doesn't offer good conditions for turf so we sell rather less pre-grown turf or lawn care products. But if you have a lot of stone or brick instead, the cost per square metre is likely to be higher. It's also easier to look after, rather than having to mow the lawn - although couples may change their mind and decide to lay turf once they have children."
The store is reaping the rewards of a £250,000 revamp completed a year ago that brought in a cafe and flower shop. "They have brought us new customers but we continue to make tweaks - it's a work in progress," says Challis. "We are a plant-based garden centre - that's where our expertise and passion lies. Although we're quite small, we have a good range of shrubs, herbaceous plants and bulbs - just not big trees."
In well-to-do Maida Vale, Clifton Nurseries nursery manager Guy Pullen says the store has to be choosy about its range. "We have affluent, intelligent, style-conscious customers who want our help and advice and who appreciate the best - that allows us to operate at a high level," he points out.
"But we also have a very small site compared to most rural centres so we have to be very selective in our buying choices. We can't hold a full A-Z so people have to trust our selections. We can command a higher price for most things but that has to be reflected in the quality of the plants."
The nursery has no car park though, and limited access - a factor not just for customers. "We can have trouble getting reluctant suppliers to deliver into London," he says. Competition for staff is also likely to be higher. "Although we have a ready supply of fantastic members of staff, it's a transient workforce so turnover is high."
Like Ginkgo, Clifton has invested in a catering offer - Clifton Kitchen run by contract caterer Leafi. "It has been building a strong fan base," says Pullen. "It is rare to find such a peaceful, airy place to sit in central London. Plants will always be the focus at Clifton but it enhances our offer, especially at weekends, while our range of home and garden ware in our garden room will keep turnover steady through the off-season."
In the north of the city, Sunshine Garden Centre, on the site of a former open-air swimming pool in leafy Bounds Green, has the relative luxury of a car park. But director Paul Douglass says the centre has to work to get the most out of it.
"At the weekend we will have four people in the car park, directing customers to a parking space as they come in, then taking their trolleys back off them when they've finished unloading. Time spent disposing of a trolley is time that another customer could spend in the garden centre," he explains.
"The car park attendants will communicate with the shop. A full car park means they need to get customers through the tills. But it's safe and friendly - we get positive comments. At Tesco, you have to fight for a car parking space."
The customer focus continues inside, says planteria manager Dennis Lynch. "We offer high level of service, from the meet-and-greet on the door right through to the till. We may not be the cheapest, but customers come for advice, and we beat the sheds for that hands down."
Grow your own has exemplified this. "It's brought a steady flow of customers," says Lynch. The centre has been promoting "vertical gardening" - baskets of strawberries hanging from pillars - as a way of making small spaces more productive. "You don't need a lot of space. You can grow herbs on your windowsill. It's a good one-to-two years' mileage, but like any trend it is subject to the bubble bursting," he warns.
The centre is part of the Garden Centre Association's Green Cities initiative and has worked with local schools to promote vegetable growing. "They also come to us looking for ideas for things like sensory gardens," adds Lynch.
"We have thought a lot about the space issue - every square inch has to count," says Douglass. "We have extended the planteria and created a flow around it with the help of a consultant - it had been a bit higgledly-piggledy. But we still have a massive range of things like herbaceous plants."
Indoors too, the store has the luxury of a showroom-like display space. "Things like furniture and barbecues can be status symbols and people will come from far and wide for those," says Douglass. "Branding is important and the Sunshine Garden Centre name is part of that. But we spend zero on promotion - it's all word of mouth."
- The Garden Retail Awards at Grosvenor House in London on 1 November has a new "best urban garden centre" category. For details on how to enter, see www.gardenretailawards.com
HIDEAWAY ON THE HILL
Gipsy Hill in south-east London is home to a colourful range of independent shops, cafes and pubs, even in the shadow of a large Sainsbury's. Among these is the supermarket's next-door neighbour, the Secret Garden Centre - aptly named given its near-invisibility from the high street.
Owner Roger Cox has no problem with his bigger neighbour. "It used to be a Morrisons, but when that shut down my main draw ceased to exist. But being taken over by Sainsbury's has helped. They have asked me not to sell Christmas trees, not that I wanted to sell them anyway, and when the snow came in February we helped each other with shovels and things."
The wealth of local catering makes it pointless having a cafe, even if the site had room for one, he adds. "We are plant-led and people come to us for that. We've tried selling garden furniture but you really need an indoor display. I can't compete with Homebase or B&Q on things like barbecues and we can't take big lorries. But we try to make it an interesting place to visit. That way they might buy more than they meant to and also might tell their friends."
However, the centre sticks with the traditional A-Z arrangement of plants. "We don't have room to show people how they might use the plants in their gardens - we could be selling something there instead," says Cox. "There is another small garden centre towards Herne Hill - we help each other out. We do a range of water plants and other garden centres will suggest us to their customers for that. It's a friendly industry."
Operating on a small scale helps the centre bring in specialist suppliers of things like trellises. "I don't have to worry about my credit level with them - they know they'll get paid," says Cox. "But we have to price it all up because we don't have electronic point of sale."
Several of the staff are on "second or third" careers, he adds. "We have an ex-carpenter, an ex-shop owner, and one girl who is about to go into social work. Having a bit of nous is what matters. If you are interested in a subject you'll learn it quickly.
"Customers don't come with a plant, they come with a question, so you need helpful, knowledgeable staff. If they don't know the answer to a question they'll find someone who does or look it up."
He describes his customer base as "a mix of well-heeled and not-so-well-heeled", adding that the area's diverse population appreciates having somewhere to buy chilli and sweetcorn plants as well as the grow-you-own staples.