Canny operators are turning the humble garden centre into an anchor for retail schemes. Mark Faithfull unearths some trailblazing examples

The sleepy world of garden centres was always unlikely to remain the same once the big boys got involved. Tesco’s acquisition of Dobbies in 2008 and the long, bitter battle for Wyevale helped thrust this most traditional of industries into the battleground of mainstream retail.

Gardening, too, has long since left its homely roots behind to become a lifestyle offer on which some consumers are prepared to spend significant sums. From large, purpose-built retail developments with concessions, to the familiar independent garden centre that tacks on a local conservatory installer in the car park, garden retailers are well-versed in letting space.

Specialists such as First Franchise have sprung up to match-make concession retailers with garden centres, in its case with 30 brands ranging from Ben & Jerry’s to The Works. Some retailers have heavily skewed expansion towards garden centres, such as Pets Corner, which has over two-thirds of its 64 outlets in garden centres, and camping and clothing retailer Yeomans Outdoor Leisure, which operates 25 of its 80 stores from garden centres.

Branching out

Garden centre operators have become attuned to adding complementary offers. For example, Garden & Leisure Group operates a variety of concessions at its seven garden centres, introducing those that provide a product or service it can’t, to drive footfall. Its flagship Cadbury outlet, near Bristol, includes unusual offerings such as a chiropractic clinic and an angling outlet.

Bicester Avenue, in Oxfordshire, established a new shopping format when it opened in 2007. Real estate agent Hammond Phillips placed 20 specialist outlets, along with a food-and-play barn hub, in a horseshoe around a flagship Wyevale Garden Centre, in a scheme funded through a full-space pre-let. Tenants include Cotswold Outdoor, Laura Ashley, HobbyCraft and Lakeland.

Dobbies in Chesterfield - which has 13 retail units, a farm-food hall and a large restaurant - and Springfields Outlet Shopping in Spalding, Lincolnshire, have followed suit. But arguably the most advanced implementation of a retail park anchored by a garden centre is the recently opened Peterborough Garden Park, with upmarket garden centre operator Van Hage at the helm. Garden Park Investments, a garden retail destination specialist, opened the £25m scheme in February on a 15-acre site, which was 85% pre-let at launch.

The Peterborough development marks the first time Le Creuset, Hawkin’s Bazaar and Past Times have taken space in such a scheme. Other units have been taken by a 9,500 sq ft HobbyCraft, Cotton Traders, Maidenhead Aquatics, Pets Corner and upmarket cafe Andronicas World of Coffee. Van Hage has a Crystal Palace-style 50,000 sq ft building with an 80,000 sq ft external sales area.

Garden Park Investments chief executive Edward Olley was involved in establishing Bicester Avenue and says that, after opting for a horseshoe-shaped store profile there, for Peterborough they chose an elongated mall shape as it gave a full brand profile to all the retailers as customers enter.

Much of Olley’s background is with designer outlet centres and while Peterborough Garden Park is a full-price offer, the scheme enjoys many of the attributes of an outlet centre.

Aside from the architecturally imposing anchor, the other units are in a loosely themed rustic environment with spacious walkways, and rents are based purely on turnover. Olley jokingly calls Garden Park Investments a “complete pain of a landlord”, because of the amount of work the company has done with its retail tenants to ensure that its vision is executed.

Retail park life

With Peterborough Garden Park located off a busy highway outside the city, Olley stresses that retail park methodology, branding and promotion have all been adopted to drive footfall and, crucially, repeat visits.

“Van Hage has a very strong reputation in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, but we have had to start from scratch in Cambridgeshire, by letting consumers know about the high-quality food offer, the florists, the outdoor lecture theatre and so on,” he says.

“We want to encourage mums and children to drop in regularly, which is why, for example, we worked with our aquatics retailer to create an aquarium which holds 10 tons of water. These sorts of theatrical elements bring people in regularly and increase dwell time.”

Olley admits that part of the challenge is ensuring that shoppers understand what a garden park is and what it offers - particularly in terms of encouraging drop-in custom and repeat footfall. Although the company holds a 9-acre Andover site off the A303, suitable for a 40,000 sq ft retail development, he says that the next year will be spent focusing on the Peterborough unit and optimising the format.

There will be an emphasis on events, with a number of event spaces throughout the site - including one that will host a wedding in September - ideal for markets and seasonal promotions. The outdoor retail element of Van Hage will become an ice rink for Christmas.

Springfields Outlet Centre at Spalding also capitalises on a mix of gardening appeal and retail, although its offer combines two disparate elements to create a retail and leisure destination. The Springfields Festival Gardens is a landscaped area featuring Chelsea-style showcase gardens, including designs by Charlie Dimmock and Kim Wilde, and a Japanese garden by Sansui Design. The adjacent shopping centre includes a large Marks & Spencer, Gap, Reebok and Game, plus recent additions TM Lewin and Animal.

“It really is a distinctive offer,” says John Michell, head of shopping centre management at leasing agent King Sturge. “The gardens draw in people from a wide catchment, especially the Midlands, Stamford, Peterborough and the like. We get something like 800 coach visits each year, and the combination means people can enjoy wandering the gardens, then do some shopping and have lunch or a drink at the Spring Fields Tavern on site.”

A garden centre is attached to the gardens, while the outlet centre runs promotional events across the year. “It’s something unique and it has been a star performer, with turnover up 19% last year on 2008,” Michell says.

Chris Warren, partner of retail services with Cushman Wakefield, which leased Peterborough Garden Park, notes that the scheme was one of the few retail projects to open last year and, despite the tough market and the niche offer, it achieved a strong pre-let.

“Planning consent was pretty tight, because although the local authority was keen to encourage the scheme it was also adamant that it needed to protect the town centre,” he says.

“Locating with a garden centre is not for everyone, but where you can bring together a strong anchor, a good catchment and a complementary retail offer then you have a very interesting proposition for the consumer.”

Garden Centre Anchors

Peterborough Garden Park, Peterborough

Van Hage anchors this recently opened garden retail centre, which includes a host of complementary retail units in an upmarket lifestyle centre.

Springfields Outlet Centre, Spalding, Lincolnshire

A fashion-led factory outlet centre and a garden centre, plus the popular Festival Gardens, are co-located at this project, which capitalises on traffic drawn to the separate elements. The leisure and shopping destination attracts 2.3 million visitors a year.

Bicester Avenue, Oxfordshire

Opened in 2007, Wyevale’s flagship store anchors what is commonly regarded as the first scheme to combine a garden centre with a retail park.

Dobbies, Chesterfield

This retail centre is anchored by Dobbies and includes 13 retail units, a farm-food hall and a substantial restaurant.

Cadbury outlet, Bristol

More concession-based, this is the flagship of Garden & Leisure Group’s seven outlets and focuses on bringing together an eclectic lifestyle offer.