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  • Collaborative working: It’s better when we’re together

    Garden Centre Retail looks at collaborative working to find out why we’re so successful at it.
    Other retail industries often can’t believe the openness of the garden retail industry.
    The sharing of figures and information between perceived competitors baffles some. But this is a factor that has helped garden centres survive where high street retailers haven’t.
    The beauty of sharing is that the industry wins. Garden centres countrywide are seeing a change in customer-base. The baby boomer generation has been a staple garden centre customer for the past 40 years.
    Millennials, using garden centres to meet friends and to be closer to nature are now regulars too.
    Many suggest that gardening is dying out. But garden centres are proving that they don’t have to go when the skills go.

    Collaborative working leads to survival

    One of the reasons that garden centres have survived recessions is collaborative working. Greengrocers, butchers and other high-street retailers have failed in these times.
    Competition in this market is exactly what competition should be. Garden centres strive to be the best, whilst bringing along the rest.
    Associations such as the HTA and more so the GCA are assisting their members. They put on conferences,seminars and exhibitions for members. This increases their knowledge on certain subjects. But the best part of these types of events is the networking opportunities they present.
    Buying groups and marketing collaborations add to this. They offer garden centres the chance to become part of something bigger. Yes, there are plenty of financial benefits for a garden centre to be part of a collaborative group. Rebates and the terms these groups are able to negotiate leaves more margin for profit. But it is much bigger than that.
    Garden centres are also keen to reap the rewards that come with being a buying group member. Members of the groups often state that without them, trading would be much tougher.
    The networking opportunities these groups and the associations offer are priceless. The information shared is vital.


    Ian Wylie of the Garden Centre Association explains what the GCA does for its members.
    “We enable members to learn from each other and install best practice.
    “We also offer members access to our GROW e-learning initiative. This brings high quality education and training to those employed in garden centres.
    “The initiative helps garden centre staff to improve their knowledge. It helps them gain confidence and expertise. It improves the quality of the customer experience.
    “Each year we hold regular regional meetings. Our member centres from each area get together to hear from our inspectors who visit centres. They find out how they’re performing.
    The inspectors report back to the centres about what they have found on their travels. They share what works, and they share improvements. Our members can take this feedback away and prepare for a second set of inspections.
    “During our annual conference members can meet and network with peers. We arrange lots of insightful and inspirational guest speakers for the event. They share entrepreneurial and business experience. The members then put it into practice.

    “We also present our national awards. It’s a real opportunity for all our members to celebrate a successful year.”

    Buying and Marketing Groups

    The Tillington Group is a collaboration of independent garden centres in the UK.
    There are currently 11-member companies with 38 garden centres. Combined turnover is over £200m. This includes some of the biggest single turnover site centres in the UK. Members are winners of many National GCA Awards.
    Tillington offers a great resource to its members. Dennis Espley, non-executive chairman of the group says: “We offer competitive buying terms. We also offer exclusive products and offers for our customers.
    “Confidentiality is key. This enables members to discuss all aspects of the trade in the knowledge it will not leak.
    “Over the years we have learnt which areas work best for full co-operation. We are more flexible in some areas, so it works for all members.
    “The Garden centre trade is dynamic and ever changing. Hence its relative success to other retail areas, and we want to be at the forefront of this.”

    Future Marketing

    Future Marketing launched in 1997. Garden centre owners came together with the aim of collaborative working for marketing projects.
    “The group has evolved into a buying group. Some joint marketing remains” explains chairman David Little.
    “Supply agreements are in place with around 60 of the leading manufacturers. We have products across gardening, giftware, furniture and Christmas.
    “Members of FMG receive preferential buying terms depending on the group’s needs. I should emphasise that it is very much a two-way relationship. Our members will make the commitment to range, exclusivity, payment terms and volume. Members and Suppliers also save time.”
    10 like-minded independent garden centres joined forces in 2002 to create Choice Marketing.
    The aim was to build a business which offered sustainable benefits for their members.
    The business model enabled centres to keep control, whilst benefiting from better services.

    Choice Marketing

    Choice is a not for profit organisation which works in the background. It has its own staff, leaving members more time to concentrate on running operations.

    Michelle de Lavis-Trafford says: “Choice offers enhanced profitability through economies of scale. We offer group purchasing and annual rebates.

    “It also provides cost-effective professional marketing solutions via a specialist marketing agency.
    “We are working together to create buying power only enjoyed by big retailers.”
    There are now 39 centres within the group and new members are being added at the rate of approx. 2 per annum.
    Centres must be the right size so that they can make a solid contribution to the group. Geographical restrictions are in place, but opportunities do exist in certain counties. Membership is unlikely to exceed 50 in the next 5 years.

    Garden Centres

    David Little runs Poplars Garden Centre. Poplars is a member of Future.

    “Poplars joined FMG in 2012” he explains. “We joined because it made commercial sense; a group can achieve so much more than an independent. Working in isolation does mean that you can act quickly but you work in the dark with your hands tied.
    “What attracted us most was the level of input members have.
    “As Chairman I’m very involved but my level of input is no different to any other member. Our Group Treasurer and Group Buyer both put in a huge amount of work. Each of the product buyers has a high level of input and do much of the unseen work. Each year we go to market to make sure we have the best products from the best suppliers at the best prices.
    “Joining a group, whether it’s the GCA, the HTA or a buying group has many benefits. My telephone directory is full of other Garden Centre operators that I know well. We all support each other. As long as you give, you will receive.
    “We learnt this during our time as RBIS members. I’ve yet to encounter a problem that someone, somewhere hasn’t already solved.”


    Garden Centre Retail interviewed Mark Winchester at Blackbrooks recently. Mark is the chair at Choice. He credits some of Blackbrooks’ success to the collaborative working of the group.
    “We have a strong board which meets up on a regular basis, and it’s all voluntary” he explains. “We have a CEO and we have a manager of operations that run the day to day functioning. We have various forums that specialise in certain areas. We’re a cooperative organisation that buys collaboratively. The support offered has been vital to the success that Blackbrooks has enjoyed. The profitability of the business has improved.”

    Millbrook Garden Centre

    Tammy Woodhouse of Millbrook Garden Centre is a member of the Future Marketing Group.
    “We felt at the time that it would be good for our marketing activity” she explains.
    “In the early days it did help us to move our marketing forwards. Now the group is more focused on group terms and has helped us to grow our margin
    “The support of other independent garden centres is important to us. It’s great to understand what is working in other companies. There are always ideas and things that we can learn from and take on board ourselves.”
    The buying, marketing and association groups are to continue driving this industry. By doing that, the garden retailers will be best placed to adapt to the changing landscape of the market.

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