While 2019 has seen more than its fair share of gloomy news from the High Street, the garden centre sector has generally remained buoyant; but retail operations specialists at Malcolm Scott Consultants are warning operators not to allow themselves to become complacent.

Competition from non-traditional garden and seasonal retailers within the sector could have a detrimental effect on centres if they don’t look to diversify and evolve, enhancing their offering and customer experience in 2020, the business is advising owners and managers.

Andrew Burton of MSC says: “We’re not only talking about John Lewis and its change in tackling customer perception as seen in its new Southampton Store here; we’re also looking at the rise of numerous discount home-and-garden retailers with a growing national footprint which represent a huge threat to garden centres.

 “B&M Stores, for example, is on track to launch a further 46 outlets over the coming 12 months, having established itself as a staple choice for customers seeking good quality, with a good value offering, and is now fast becoming a destination store for important product categories including Christmas decorations, gardening and DIY – so much so that its website store-finder highlights ‘B&M Home Store and Garden Centre’.

“The Range has also noticeably upped the stakes: The retailer has always had a strong price-point and a diverse range of products, particularly at Christmas, but this year it has invested a lot of time and energy into its displays, layout of product and ambience, providing an enhanced customer experience which is going to pay off thanks to the way it will inspire and engage with visitors.

“Competition from online operators for high value considered purchased products has represented a threat for garden centres for some years, however, the numbers of these new stores, which sell well-known brands at discount prices, often in more convenient, central locations, is growing significantly.  Garden centres need to counter the competition by upping their own game in response,” he adds.

The Malcolm Scott Consultants team, which expanded its service offering to advise on planning permissions, build business development strategies and advise on retail, catering and visitor attraction operations have worked with centres throughout the UK this year to advise on customer experience and design.  Securing permission for enhanced retail and catering experiences and introducing additional visitor attractions to drive increased footfall and encourage longer visits are a key part of helping clients to ensure they don’t stand still, don’t become complacent and that they evolve effectively.

The key, says Andrew, is immersion and time: Customers want to feel welcomed, relaxed, engaged and energised during their visits, and want to leave feeling inspired. 

“Creating value for time is often a strong motivation for customers also, and this goes for all demographics.  Whether it be a tranquil restaurant experience, a spot pf gardening and retail therapy or a game of crazy golf, the customer wants to know they have spent their time well: Linking all of these together is the golden egg. 

“It is important that centres have a clear offer that the customer understands.  It can’t be confusing, and it is essential that every single decision to evolve the business is done with thought and with a robust business plan.  Having spent 15 years in the garden centre industry and four working in the visitor attraction business, I believe there is a difference in customer mindset, but it is a line that can be crossed to create a fluid link between the retail minded garden centre customer and the tourism customer.

“Today’s garden centres have fantastic restaurants, huge amounts of space to utilise and inspire with, and the opportunity to create an ambience that secures repeat visits. It’s vital to evolve, introduce new lines, develop unique selling points and devise rolling event plans to capture the imagination,” he explains.

“Garden centres have shown they are good at events and services such as Christmas launches and workshops, Santa’s grottos, temporary ice-rinks and welcoming smaller ad hoc events.  However, garden centres have the space and the opportunity to engage with and excite customers even further in ways that the average retail store can only dream of. 

“Creating a centre as a destination in its own right, whatever its size, is essential.  A lot of garden centres and farm shops do have the opportunity to develop their retail offering, cafes and restaurants, improve events plans and in creating a stronger, more immersive retail experience.”

“Building a robust 12 month rolling events and marketing plan is key to delivering increased footfall, whatever size business you are.  I’ve been doing this for the past four years and you can’t build these plans flippantly or by gut feeling, so seeking advice if needed is essential,” he explains.

Take Bents Garden Centre in Glazebury, which  certainly knows how to hold its own against the most imaginative competitors: its indoor beach, 18-hole Jurassic Cove adventure golf course and an ever-changing events calendar – not to mention its extensive choice of dining options, including a pet café – make it one of the country’s best examples. With MSC having worked with the business to introduce a cookery school, school of horticulture and an Apothecary’s Garden of herbs and medicinal plants at the site, development of which is well underway, Bents moves from strength to strength.

Wentworth Garden Centre, Rotherham has a fantastic offering, combining a walled garden centre with stately home gardens, two restaurants, an adventure playground and a family farm.  The solution appeals to a diverse demographic and has cemented the centre as a destination of choice for both locals and visitors from further afield.

Wentworth Garden Centre
Wentworth Garden Centre
Wentworth Garden Centre

Andrew adds: “With such proven track records of success to inspire, every centre has the potential to be creative and engaging, but not everyone has the vision. Or, often, they do – they simply don’t always know where to start, which is where we come in: with over 30 years of business development, design and planning experience, backed up with 28 years of retail and catering management and visitor attraction expertise, we thrive on our work with clients to create detailed business development plans, to maximise space and opportunities, and to help bring those plans to fruition.

“Every centre operator will be taking stock of 2019’s highs and lows, and discussing how they can raise the bar in 2020, especially in light of new challenges from other retailers. We’re encouraging operators to include us in those discussions so that we can help centres across the country fulfil their potential and grow their business, their offering, and in support of potential bottom line as a result.”

Contact Andrew Burton for further details at