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Garden Centre Gameplan

How are Britain's two biggest garden centre chains growing the market? Matthew Appleby investigates.

Both Garden Centre Group (GCG) and Dobbies have been through big changes in the past couple of years, but now the two biggest names in the garden retail industry have their plans in place for the future. Formerly Wyevale, GCG has been through different owners and avoided succumbing to a £360m debt under chief executive officer Nicholas Marshall's refinancing with the Bank of Scotland, after his appointment by the 120-centre chain in September 2008.

Dobbies, meanwhile, may be smaller than GCG with just 25 stores, but the Edinburgh-headquartered chain has ambitious plans for 100 centres each turning over £10m by 2018, following its takeover by Tesco in August 2007 for £155m.

Dobbies and GCG differ widely in how much responsibility is devolved to store managers. Dobbies chief executive James Barnes says: "We're going more and more centralised on that. It should allow the management team to focus on service and the customer rather than what's coming into the warehouse." However, GCG chief executive Nicholas Marshall says: "They buy pretty well everything. I've given them it back, and quite rightly. "Customers in Hastings, Henley and Heighley Gate are not the same. Managers are very much in charge of their stock now. My whole thing about managing garden centres is you have to be entrepreneurial. We do have a plant list and a list of nurseries with agreed prices and volumes, but then it's up to individual centres to order stock.

Barnes is committed to rapid expansion of Dobbies. "Wanting 100 centres in a decade has been in place since 2006 - it's nothing new. We have seven to eight years to run and we will have to accelerate, naturally, but absolutely that is the plan," he explains. "We have four on the ground, four with planning permission and others pending. We have a small property team that goes up to director level. New sites are fundamental to what we do. Our existing business is 50/50 acquisition and greenfield. We wouldn't rule out smaller centres, but the full formula of 45-50,000sq feet as at Aberdeen we know works."

He sees the current economic and political situation as favourable. "Wealth creation and economic development are higher up planning agendas in recession," he says. "We hope that embeds in planning because without it UK PLC grinds to a halt. Job creation needs to be taken into account as part of the planning process. We could turn over £600m-£700m, maybe more, from new sites and driving sales from existing sites."

GCG, at 120 stores, does not have any current expansion plans but instead is revamping every store with new toilets, restaurants, benching, entrances through planterias and even new store names. The group continues to open allotments on spare land alongside garden centres.

Source : Matthew Appleby - Horticulture Week

06 August 2010
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