the big interview

What are the biggest opportunities? The fact that our customers see the benefits of gardening more and more as part of a healthy lifestyle. Gardening is great for your physical and mental wellbeing and a hobby that you can enjoy all your life. My grandfather was gardening right up to his death at the age of 97, which is certainly a good advert for the pursuit.

Gardening can also be creative and indeed academic if you wish. There are so many levels on which you can garden, from planting a few pots with colourful seasonal bedding plants to garden design and plant heritage - or the pure horticultural pleasure of propagating, pruning and harvesting.

In this country we have fantastic nurseries growing an increasing variety of better and better plants. Plant quality has never been so high. Buying UK-grown - and particularly locally-grown - also means less plant miles. Gardening for wildlife has also become increasingly important in providing habitat for native flora and fauna, so this is an area we focus on in terms of product and information. We work on this with Surrey Wildlife Trust [a charity that manages over 8000ha of land for wildlife and people in Surrey, with the support of volunteers and members].

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen since you joined the garden centre market? It’s changed enormously since the 1960s when more or less all we sold were plants, tools and a few fertilisers. Years ago, who

would have thought that we would be selling speciality food ranges, gifts or clothing? Yet these goods are another reason to visit and help to drive sales at otherwise quiet times of the year and when the weather is inclement. They have been instrumental in driving footfall. Catering has become increasingly

significant, and in recent years has been growing at a greater pace than the rest of our business. It will be interesting to see whether that trend will flatten out or whether the public will continue to have a growing appetite for eating out. However, I still firmly believe that our USP is plants and gardening and that we neglect that part of our business at our peril. Plants should always, and unashamedly, be our favourite child in this business.

Competition has evolved too. Our products can be sourced not just in garden centres but also in DIY sheds, online and, increasingly, in supermarkets.

We are also competing for the leisure time of our customers. Years ago there was not so much to do at the weekends. Nowadays you can shop, cycle, visit the gym, play computer games, visit theme parks, eat out to your heart’s content, find a festival… the list is endless. We are challenged to make sure that customers still want to visit us and have a great time and see lots of interesting items - and enjoy great food when they do. A lot has been written about experiential retailing and garden centres really are in the thick of it.

So, what’s the outlook?

Call me an optimist but I think that our sector is, and can continue to be, a force for good in our country. We already know how generous the industry is in its support of local charities and national causes such as Greenfingers and Perennial, the UK’s only charity dedicated to helping people who work in horticulture when times get tough.

We can be great places to work, offering an interesting and varied career. We can look after our customers, offering them a professional yet very human, friendly and warm experience in our centres - which I think is increasingly valuable in a faceless electronic world. Plants are good for people and have a huge

role to play in improving the physical and mental health of the nation. I think we should all be shouting very loudly indeed about the benefits of our industry to the economy and health of our nation and the wellbeing of our communities.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Housewares magazine .

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GCU July 2019

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