Is a garden centre still a centre just for gardening? John Ryan visits Dobbies in Atherstone to find out.

What is a garden centre for? Plants and things related to their propagation and health? Dining out? The acquisition of tropical fish or pet accessories? Or maybe some food to eat when you get home?

The days of visiting a plant nursery seem long gone.

Visiting a large garden centre today means a host of different things, and while this form of retailing has always fallen into the ‘destination’ category, it no longer just means throwing open the car boot and filling it with compost and hardy perennials.

“All of the units have been linked together with an automatic irrigation system, affording staff more time to deal with customers”

Dobbies – the UK’s second-largest garden centre operator – is a case in point.

Sold by Tesco last year as part of the grocer’s back-to-its-roots push, the Edinburgh-based outfit’s store in Atherstone, Warwickshire, has 160,000 sq ft of space. It has an equal selling area indoors and out, catering for a wide variety of shoppers.

Chief executive John Cleland says that while Atherstone is large, it is not the biggest branch in the garden centre’s 34-strong portfolio: “Melville [in Edinburgh] has historically been the flagship for Dobbies and it still is. [But] this is our store of the future,” he says.

Optimising space

Atherstone is a work in progress.

Following the Tesco sale a three-phase update has been in progress, with phase one – which has involved being “best at plants and gardening”, according to Cleland – now completed.

Dobbie's, Atherstone

Dobbie’s, Atherstone

The seed Potato Shop takes pride of place in the store

Cleland says that phase one has also meant “reconfiguring the space and a better use of equipment”.

This means that customers walking through the main door are greeted by what looks like a supermarket on the left, complete with a deli and butcher’s counter.

The mid-floor equipment height is low and fashioned from dark metal, which looks similar to an M&S Simply Food.

The aesthetic is new for Dobbies, and while the deli and the butcher are concessions, the rest of this area has been created in-house.

From August the posh supermarket and food-to-go environment will be rolled out to all stores.

This roll-out does not come cheap and Cleland comments that the total cost will be £3m – but the fresh cakes at the front of the department do look good, and if treats form part of the shopper mission, this is where it will be fulfilled.

“Back in from the chill and if you’re looking for a meal, the restaurant – which has been the subject of phase two of the store makeover – has room for up to 600 diners paying an average of around £8 each”

After the bank of cash registers is the garden centre offer that most will be familiar with.

Anything from a pair of posh wellies (either Hunter or Aigle) to the complete range of Hozelock garden hose adaptors are on offer.

The Hozelock display is housed in a greenhouse-like area that’s positioned before the more traditional elements of a garden centre – plants.

Green fingers

Prior to being outside, shoppers can pass through an outdoor ‘cold house’ – a covered space that has no heating, but where the plants are not fully exposed to the elements.

Beyond this, in the open air, there are rows of plants.

Once more, products are low-level, meaning it’s easy to get around, and all of the units have been linked together with an automatic irrigation system, affording staff more time to deal with customers.

Worth noting too is the open-sided kiosk called the Planting & Advice Station. Cleland says that taking plants and providing a service where they are potted is “a £1m-a-year business across our shops”.

Back in from the chill and if you’re looking for a meal, the restaurant – which has been the subject of phase two of the store makeover – has room for up to 600 diners paying an average of around £8 each.

There is also an area where tables can be booked online for afternoon tea.

All of these elements mean that the Atherstone store is a lot more than just a place to do horticultural shopping.

This is probably as it should be, as there are fairly respectable gardening offers in the majority of DIY outlets.

In fact, the day before visiting the Atherstone branch was up 54% on the prior year – so it must be doing something right.

Dobbies, Atherstone

Size: 160,000 sq ft

Site: 51 acres

Store status: ‘Store of the future’

Chief executive: John Cleland