Touring South Africa

February 26, 2008
Written by Brian Minter
10The International Garden Center Congress was held in South Africa Oct. 7-13, and it was a true eye opener into the world of garden centres. The South Africans not only showcased some of the best and most innovative garden stores I’ve seen, but they also tied in South African culture and history for an outstanding event. The country boasts a population of 44 million and has a strong economy. It is a country of contrasts but one with great hope for the future.

The stores included in our tour were located in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria and could never be accused of retail sameness. Many of the larger stores added value to their shopping experience by including other businesses into their stores: everything from boutique shops, first-class restaurants, wellness centres, children’s theme parks to even horticultural colleges. They seem to have a clear vision of the future.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed to ours and we saw their “spring season,” which runs from September through Christmas. The temperatures are cool enough for deciduous trees to drop their leaves in April through to July, and they grow our traditional fruit, flowering and shade trees as well as citrus and tropicals all at the same time. The climate supports more diverse numbers of plants than anywhere else in the world.

Despite the unique climate, the plants sold in South Africa are similar to those sold across Canada. From petunias to marigolds and alyssums to vegetables, the annual crops are almost identical. Flowering shrubs, colourful conifers, roses, abelias, boxwoods and photinias are all standard fare. The difference is in the outdoor tender tropical plants. Even though temperatures can get close to frost, amazing proteas, durantas, coprosmas, palms and strelitzias grow and thrive in their hot summers. There aren’t many of our traditional perennials, except for lavenders, but the selection and variety of stock is excellent. Hardly any containers are done up for patios and hanging baskets are almost non-existent because of the summer heat and strong winds.

South African garden stores are masters of display merchandising. Two major stores relied on college students to build competitive outdoor display gardens and offered cash prizes to the colleges. These stunning and highly professional displays are used as showpieces at the centres to inspire customers. The pathways in South African garden centres are bricked and the bricks are used to create raised beds. This creates a nice flow throughout the garden stores and well-designed layouts lead folks into all parts of the stores.

Water is a predominant theme year round and a major part of home gardens in South Africa. The breadth and depth of water options is overwhelming. With unique features like huge bowls of vanishing water, it is a water paradise.

The South Africans’ use of colour co-ordination is another masterful touch. Using plants and pots all in the same colour tones bumps up the displays. They use paint to co-ordinate display counters, walls and add-in features. They also make great use of wattle fencing as backdrops and dividers.

The larger garden stores are forward thinking in adding space within their complex for other stores to rent or lease, creating a great value-add shopping experience and also providing rental income. Craft, boutique, art, candy, clothing, pet, pond, kids and costume stores are the most common – one store even has a hairdresser! The most amazing is a wellness centre complete with spas, massage therapy and lecture rooms.

One store we visited acts as the anchor for a high-end mall. The store spreads out into a series of restaurants, flowing from the outdoor sales area into absolutely beautiful gardens surrounding the restaurant and a venue for weddings and corporate events. It makes the entire mall a true destination and adds a huge value to the shopping and eating experience.

The restaurants in most of the centres are very well done and in one store, they attract the younger crowd in the evening with a DJ and disco. Stores usually feature a kids’ play area as well.

One interesting trend we saw was a couple of the bigger stores had built huge warehouse-type buildings, creating a big box environment. Their plants and displays were very high end, and these seemed to be generating the highest sales volumes. They were, in fact, taking the role of competing with the big boxes. We also visited a builders warehouse chain that is challenging the independent garden stores. Their quality selection is superb and curiously, their prices are not discounted but priced competitively with garden stores.

South Africa has become a leader in the world of garden stores. I am still trying to grasp an understanding of what we experienced. By creating many different shopping experiences, they are very relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s consumers. They offer so many diverse venues that they have truly become visitor destinations. In short, they are all inspiring.

Canada was well represented at the congress with 20 participants out of 183; the second-largest contingent, outnumbered only by England. The ability to network with so many of the world’s elite garden centres was an opportunity not to be missed. Canada is hosting the 2008 IGCA Congress next  Sept. 7-12 in Vancouver. This event will offer an opportunity to connect with some amazing folks in our industry. For further information and registration forms contact Renata Triveri at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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