In an exclusive interview, Graeme Jenkins, CEO of the UK’s largest garden centre operator Dobbies, reveals four things he’s putting at the top of his priority list
As customer needs continue to evolve and cost-of-living challenges persist, the retailers meeting customers’ needs in one place and cost-effectively offering top-level customer service are coming out on top.
Formats are flexing, service offerings advancing and the roles of driven, experienced store teams are becoming ever more noticeably indispensable.
As the UKs largest garden centre operator, Dobbies is leading the charge in this store’s evolution, having more than doubled its store footprint since 2019 as part of its mission to “enrich people’s lives and nurture connections between people, the community and the environment”.
Dobbies chief executive Graeme Jenkins gives a sneak peek into Dobbies’ top four strategies for future success, ahead of his appearance at Retail Week’s Stores Summit on May 24.
Speaking on the panel ‘Formats for a flexible future: How to diversify retail spaces and increase ROI’, Graeme is set to discuss the evolution of stores, which service offerings put in the work, how to improve CX while increasing ROI and the role of store teams in enhancing bricks-and-mortar experiences.
1. Focusing on formats
How have your store formats evolved over the past few years and which of these formats have proven most effective?
“Dobbies started in 1865 with James Dobbie who created a business selling seeds. The current Dobbies began in 2016 following its acquisition from Tesco and now, through further consolidation, is the UK’s number-one garden centre retailer.
“Since 2016, we have created new retail and restaurant formats, re-platformed the business for growth and established new channels to offer our products and services to our customers. We have also grown our award-winning loyalty scheme, with the base eight times that acquired from Tesco.
“Across our estate, we have a 75/25 split for our retail and restaurant offering, with a strong breadth of range featuring plants, house plants and gardening; outdoor furniture and seasonal items; pet, gifts, clothing, cookshop and homewares; as well as a wholesale food hall partnership with Waitrose.
“Strategic partnerships, such as the one we have with the John Lewis Partnership, have strengthened our position. We have nearly completed our Waitrose rollout, which has proven popular with our customers, and we offer John Lewis click-and-collect in selected stores, where on average around 70% of people collecting their parcels are new to Dobbies.
“A recent innovation has been the development of our Little Dobbies concept, which was created to offer the Dobbies experience in towns and cities, meeting the growing demand for convenience retail. Our six Little Dobbies stores cater to a mix of urban residents, ranging from students to families. The stores feature a comprehensive house plants range, plus homewares, gifting and small-space gardening products.
“We are excited to be opening a new flagship store in Antrim, Northern Ireland, later this year. This will be our second centre in Northern Ireland and the largest of all our stores, showcasing the next generation of our retail format.”
2. Engaging communities
Can you tell us more about community engagement and how it fits into your wider growth strategy?
“Through Helping Your Community Grow, Not Your Average Gardener and additional community projects throughout the year, we supported 500 community projects in 2022.
“We have raised over £1.2m for our national charity partner Teenage Cancer Trust, as well as supporting The Tree Council and Stroke Association, which both align with our customer demographic.
“We minimise food waste through our partnership with Too Good To Go, having saved over 60,000 surprise bags over the course of the partnership to date.
“We offer free-to-attend monthly workshops for gardeners of all ages and abilities with Grow How and through our children’s club Little Seedlings we have in-person workshops and online resources to engage the next generation of gardeners.”
3. Leading a people-first approach
Where do store teams fit into the Dobbies’ strategy and how do you support staff to help them offer the best customer service?
“It is important for us to give our team the skills and confidence they need to provide the best experience for our customers. Our people are at the very heart of our business, and we have a proven track record of employing and retaining talented people.
“With around 3,800 team members nationwide, 40% have been with us for over five years and 36% are 50-plus. Making sure our workplace is a rewarding, safe and fun place to be is, and will continue to be, a key priority at Dobbies as we grow the business.
“Training and development is an important part of our culture and there are always opportunities for our people to grow. We have a comprehensive online training platform, which is accessible all year round.
“We also provide access to training support through British Retail Consortium courses, mental health first aiders and training, and a wellbeing partnership with Retail Trust.”
4. Committing to a sustainable future
How do you see Dobbies’ sustainability policy evolving in the coming years?
“We are committed to delivering environmentally sustainable solutions wherever we can. Last year, we were the first major garden centre retailer to announce our bagged compost range as entirely peat free and we have since been working with our suppliers to ensure our full supply chain reaches peat-free accreditation ahead of the 2026 Defra deadline. Our popular peat-free product won the prestigious RHS Chelsea Sustainable Product of the Year in 2022.
“With a market-leading position, we are committed to driving change with initiatives such as our compost bag recycling bins in partnership with Evergreen and pot recycling bins in partnership with Elho.
“We’ve reduced our road miles by 60% through our supply chain, 99% of our waste is diverted from landfill and we’re launching EV charging points in centres across the UK.”