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Garden centres: two peas in a pod but the parking is free!

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A trip to the local garden centre is now akin to going to a department store for coffee, or to a department store for gifts, or to a craft shop for knitting needles.

Customers can have a cappuccino in the cafe, normally renamed something like ‘The Pantry’, or a latté and full English breakfast in the restaurant. They can purchase a Yankee Candle or a Noel Tatt card, or the finest wool and craft wear without the hassle of town centre shopping and the exorbitant car parking fees.

The garden centre experience has considerably moved on, and oh, I nearly forgot... you can also purchase plants as well. The modern garden centre is not the garden centre of yesteryear but a ‘leisure destination’, and if bodies such as Garden Centre Association (GCA) have intentions of renaming or rebranding these new ultra-modern centres, only time will tell.

Yet even at this very early stage in their development these garden centres are all taking on a very familiar look. Let me explain.

I spoke recently to couple of women at one such big-name garden centre. Now while both were over the moon with the garden centre itself – and one of the women, who was from Germany, said there was nothing like it in her homeland – the other woman of UK stock said that, yes, the store was wonderful, but she had seen it all before... and I have to agree.

I have travelled to many garden centres around the country and while in the Lake District I visited one at Ambleside, Cumbria just days after visiting its replica in the guise of another competitor centre in Shepperton, Surrey. They weren't the same in name, but in everything the two centres were selling.

It was if I closed my eyes in one store, opened them in another and I could not tell the difference. I then visited another centre near the village of Harlington, in Bedfordshire, and as magnificent as it was... I again experienced a large helping of déjà vu.

Now the livery of each company may have differed, but the signage was identical - add to that the store layouts that were practically the same and the products were cloned (even down to the glazed pots that were at half price)! Gifts, crafts, sundries, pet foods, coffee shops, deli, house plants, et al, and even the special offers were identical.

At the moment everything in the garden is rosy and customers such as those mentioned love the modern leisure destination concept. However, the question that has to be asked is ‘when will our customers get tired with centres selling identical products,’ and have garden centre groups got a Plan B when these customers inevitably will?

How long before the visiting experience becomes too predictable replicating the monotony of our shopping malls and retail parks? Customers revel in this new-found freedom of shopping in the peaceful setting of the garden centre, and at some garden centres you can even carry out your weekly food shop with no need go to the usual supermarkets.

Have the powers-that-be at the centre of this new leisure destination/ hospitality industry evolution reached the same conclusion as me, and the people I have spoken to, that garden centres could very easily end up like every chain store and shopping centre in the country... identical. 

By author and horticulture expert Adrian Clements

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