Green fingers

Could garden centres be the new pub?, writes Tan Parsons

Here’s a curious fact: while the number of pubs in the UK is falling, the number of on-trade licences remains broadly stable.

How to account for this? According to foodservice specialists, the answer may lie with garden centres. Here is a booming industry that is diversifying at a rate of knots and offering consumers lunch and a drink as part of their day out.

The industry seems to have weathered the recession well, helped no doubt by the fantastic summer this year – the Garden Centre Association’s ‘Barometer of Trade’ shows year-to-date sales are up 4.12% on 2012.

One industry insider summed up the opportunity for wholesalers: “It’s a great market to get into. We have an aging population with gold-plated pensions and they are the people that go to the garden centre.”

There are 2,000 garden centres in the UK, 800 of which are small retail nurseries, while 1,200 are decent-sized commercial offerings, the biggest of which would turn over more than £20m a year. The Garden Centre Group accounts for the largest stable with 139 sites, while there are about 150 groups with at least four sites. The rest are independent. Currently, 800 centres have some form of food offering, and there is the potential for this to grow.

Just as Tesco is transforming its biggest supermarkets into attractive destinations in their own right with coffee shops and restaurants, it is doing the same thing with Dobbies, the garden centre chain it acquired in 2008.

“It’s a business model that’s being copied across the country and with good reason by both independent and multiple operators,”

says Steve Dixon, wholesale channel director at foodservice specialist Cognosco Marketing.
“Gone are the days of a nursery simply supplying bedding plants or garden ornaments. Get the food  offering right and instead of going to the pub for a drink and a meal, a visit to the garden centre is now a social occasion.”


Why garden centres are diversifying


One of the main reasons garden centres are diversifying and moving increasingly into foodservice is that their traditional maket is hugely weather-dependent.
The majority of sales come in spring and a wet April can spell disaster for garden centres. So, to keep afloat during the rest of the year, many have a café and a children’s play area. In some instances, they put up ice rinks for the winter.

“Christmas is a very big market for garden centres,” says Mark Mackie, sales and marketing director at gardening supplier Rootgrow.

“It’s very popular to sell local, regional food, fudge and chocolate, gifts, bottles of cider, fruit wines, and that kind of thing.

“If wholesalers have a good offering of seasonal produce and food, there’s no reason at all they can’t work more closely with the garden centre market.

“Garden centres will increasingly sell whatever they can get away with.”

In recent years, major UK wholesalers have extended their contact with garden centres. Last year, Bestway launched a 30-item range of gardening essentials, such as gloves, hosepipes, trowels and watering cans; Nisa also announced that the Bybrook Barn Garden Centre in Kent had joined its symbol group.

Despite these ventures, this is still a market into which the wholesale sector has so far only dipped a toe. And with so many independent garden centres currently enjoying a healthy trade, there is unlikely to be large-scale consolidation any time soon.

Now could be the ideal time for wholesalers to assess their potential.


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