August 2011
Let Me Explain… By Jim Barrett

…a few things I found interesting on a recent tour of United Kingdom garden centers.

The British are known for their classical gardens and old Victorian greenhouses that contain amazing, old and important plant collections. Beyond that the British just like to garden and to visit garden centers. As one gentleman told me: “When I need to buy a birthday card for my wife, I go to a garden center” because it is a nice place to be.

In May, I spent a week in the London area touring gardens and nurseries (and a few pubs) with a group of University of Florida students and faculty. The folks at Ball Colegrave were nice enough to host our group and set up the commercial visits. Spring in the U.K. this year was early. Demand at garden centers had been very strong and things were busy. At all of our retail stops, folks were apologizing for the way things looked because they were not able to keep the displays restocked.

In many ways, the U.K. garden centers looked like ours in the U.S. and carried a similar line of products. However, there were some key differences, and a few of those I will attempt to illustrate here. The general economic situation has not hit U.K. garden center business the way it has in the U.S. An example, tree and shrub sales in the U.K. remain strong. There are probably three main reasons for that.

First, garden center business in the U.K. has not been tied as closely to growth in the housing market.Second, the U.K. gardener is probably a more serious gardener and gardening is more important to their lifestyle. Third is the fact that U.K. garden centers have generally succeeded in becoming destinations. They are clearly differentiated from the mass-market discount stores.

Everyone we talked with, whether in wholesale or retail, made the same point that their business success was all about service to the customer and giving the customer a good experience. The accompanying pictures illustrate four key things being done in the U.K. that piqued my interest.

GETTING THE WORD OUT: Coolings has been selected for the second time as the outstanding U.K. garden center and make that well known throughout their displays and on their website. Coolings does little direct advertising; they let word of mouth and its website ( bring in new customers. The emphasis for generating more sales is done through programs promoted in their enewsletter. As an example, on the day of the Royal Wedding, garden center business was nonexistent. Coolings expected that and had a program in the enewsletter for baskets at 1 Pound (~$1.70) on that day. So they had 1,000 customers in the store that would not normally be there.

THE EXPERIENCE: Notice that these plants do not have flowers, but also notice that the geraniums are moving faster than the store can restock. U.K. gardeners are more accepting of no or few flowers. At Coolings, they use the tag line “the experience is in the growing” to reinforce the concept.

PEAT FREE: The U.K. government is on record with plans to exclude peat from container substrates — especially in retail. There has been significant debate about this issue and much disagreement. Wholesalers and retailers feel implementation is years off. A few are looking at alternative compost materials but most are not worried for the short run. This picture in the retail shop of a private garden was the only time we saw the issue affecting product positioning.

THE LOCAL BATTLE: There is a running battle to reinforce the idea of locally grown. Every local product is identified as being grown in the U.K. Part of this aims to generate support for the local economy. However, some of this effort is to reinforce the idea of local being better quality than the lower priced product imported from the continent.

Jim Barrett

Jim Barrett is a consulting editor for Lawn & Garden Retailer's sister publication GPN. He is also a professor at the University of Florida. You can reach him at [email protected].