Inside View: Garden centres; potential industry champions
In many ways, garden centres are unusual in that they perhaps represent the only direct face-to-face intersection between horticulture and the buying public.
December 21, 2022 By Gary Jones
During the heady days of summer, many folks were enjoying their yards and gardens. Garden centres were busy, and the aisles were bustling. Which got me to thinking about the role of this sector of our industry. In many ways, garden centres are unusual in that they perhaps represent the only direct face-to-face intersection between horticulture and the buying public. Parks, recreation and landscape sectors are obviously directly ‘customer facing’, but with very few exceptions (e.g. botanical and display gardens, and yard maintenance companies), are not engaging the spending public. Similarly, food, flower, and cannabis producers rarely engage directly with purchasers on site (save U-Pick fruit). So, garden centres provide horticulture a unique opportunity to showcase directly to the public.
They undertake many roles. Obviously, they are go-to retail places. Selling plants is where most start, and why many people visit these centres of expertise, and to receive advice, instruction and encouragement. In the UK, larger centres have for several decades been ‘destination stores’, with plants being just part of the portfolio of products. Pots and planters, pets and pet products, books, home décor, and even clothing are all part of the offering. Many also operate high-end cafés/restaurants, in and of themselves worthy of a visit, providing a full day of entertainment which can be rounded off by taking in a ‘how to’ workshop or lecture on a diverse range of gardening-related topics. The educational role should not be underestimated for adding value to garden centre services. And don’t forget the kids among us – garden centres may want to provide an exciting playground, so the younger generation get used to visiting and being around plants and garden supplies from an early age. They may even become the ones to suggest such destinations when families are going on an outing.
While responding to popular colour trends and fashion fads, garden centres are also uniquely positioned to drive these. In the Lower Mainland in B.C. this summer, this included promoting and providing native drought tolerant, pollinator and (unfortunately!) mosquito-repelling plants. Of course, we want all our guests to pay (through purchases) for coming to visit, but there may be times when people simply want to come hang out in a place that can be considered therapeutic – the calming influence of plants in a well-designed, constructed and maintained exhibition garden can provide a great service. And we shouldn’t forget that garden centres provide excellent places of employment. Be this casual, part-time, full-time or long-term career opportunities. A noble role.
Garden centre acquisitions are often driven by retirements, lack of family succession, and occasionally in some cases, insolvency. As with many industries, smaller family-operated businesses are being folded into corporate businesses looking to increase their market share, while the market overall continues to grow. Furthermore, the market is often closely linked to the real estate activity, which can positively influence garden centre growth no matter which way it’s going – tougher real estate markets mean more home-owner spend on existing residences and easier real estate purchasing can mean new garden renovations after a move. However you look at it, the real estate market is good for us.
So then, given the unique position of garden centres as the end customer-facing front line of the horticulture industry, I wonder if there are more opportunities for partnerships to develop their roles. For example, could large food production greenhouses find a direct access to (or feedback from) consumers through garden centres? Or could post-secondary institutions that offer horticulture related programs build partnerships to extend new entrant career training for the curious public, or indeed promote industry research to curious consumers? Can we find a horticulture equivalent of the James Webb telescope to create awe and wonder in plants to create new customers? Just a thought. So, let’s consider seeking to build those relationships for all parts of the industry through our garden centre champions.
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