Why do people think that running a garden centre is so jolly easy? The countryside is littered with examples of experienced entrepreneurs, many from the high street and DIY industry, having trodden the primrose path without realising they are heading to the compost heap rather than the Garden of Eden.

I remember once at a party a man asking me what I did for a living. I replied that I ran a garden centre. He nodded enthusiastically and mused that when he retired from the City he was thinking of running a garden centre.

What a coincidence, I replied, because I had thought when I retired from horticulture I would go into the City. I quite like the sound of being a hedge manager. Yew, preferably - very slow growing and only needs cutting once a year.

Why do people think that running a garden centre is so jolly easy? The countryside is littered with examples of experienced entrepreneurs, many from the high street and DIY industry, having trodden the primrose path without realising they are heading to the compost heap rather than the Garden of Eden.

So, I set out to analyse why garden centre retail is unique. I would like to start, as one always should, with the customer. We are fortunate, with customers who are predominantly female, ABC1, middle class, middle aged - ie, almost everyone. Jolly nice they are, although these days wiser, better educated and better informed.

So what do they want from us retailers? Or, what do we want when we go shopping? We crave service, that old-fashioned word meaning competent advice given by polite, sincere and knowledgeable people who really want to help.

So there you have it. The customer craves service, our greatest strength. You see, staff in garden centres like what they do. They like plants, customers, gardening, the companionship and each other. Above all, they are sincere. That is why we have so many staff who have worked on the centres their entire working life.

Ask yourself, are the staff in DIY stores passionate about paint? Are shelf fillers in Tesco working at dead of night passionate about washing powder? Are staff, in the shoe shop in one of those dreary shopping malls, who see you coming at one minute to five and close the door in your face, passionate about trainers? Of course not and who can blame them. To them morale is a mushroom.

I believe it’s morale we need to work on to deliver the best service. So what have we done to improve morale? First we made it clear people visited centres to buy plants and quality was everything. Then we improved confidence by improving our finances (thanks to the boys in the bank); gave staff back their pride by rebranding centres; gave them responsibility to make their own stock decisions; invested in their property, showed we cared by asking and acting on their views and recognising length of service; then challenged everyone to prove they are the best.

The results have been beyond our expectations and we were able to pay our staff a bonus this year (the first in years) for helping to restore the best group of garden centres to its rightful position as industry leader.

For the future we have invested in an e-learning programme - the first of its kind in the industry - which, I believe, will transform the way we train our staff. So what has all this got to do with sincerity and cynicism? Everything, for there is nothing any of us hate more than cynicism and cynicism is rife in retailing. Now customers and staff hate that with a passion.

Nicholas Marshall is chief executive of the Garden Centre Group