Garden centres are very traditional businesses. The combination of a wide product range and expert advice is appealing to customers, particularly those looking to undertake a significant project such as garden renovation. Large chain stores and supermarket expansion have made it harder for garden centres to be profitable but there is still a market, particularly for USPs that non-specialist stores can’t offer.
Why start a garden centre?
Garden centres are often born of passion; if you are into horticulture and gardening, they can provide you with a particularly enjoyable career path and lifestyle. There are a number of ways to specialise and go up against the corporate competition, so they can be very exciting to run. The term ‘garden centre’ is very broad and you can create an innovative USP to attract customers, making it a very individual and flexible business.
What skills will I need?
Starting a garden centre will require a mix of skills. Firstly you’ll need strong business skills such as accounting, knowledge of profit and loss, awareness of cash flow and marketing and PR. As well as these general business skills, you’ll need a strong horticultural and industry background/knowledge, including:
- Knowledge of plants, their characteristics and care requirements
- Understanding of garden design including what flowers and plants go together
- DIY knowledge to help customers with project requirements such as decking, pressure washing or shed construction
- Knowledge of water features and components e.g. pumps, filters, chemicals
- Treating bug infestations, both on flowers and plants and in buildings
- How to grow fruits and vegetables successfully, including ‘alternative’ methods such as organic farming
Experience in a senior role in a garden centre is the best pre-cursor to starting a garden centre. You need experience of both the customer-facing and practical side (dealing with questions and dealing with stock) as well as the business side, such as balancing the books.
In terms of professional and academic training, there are courses available. The scope varies greatly. You may, for example, want to take a more business-led course such as Garden Centre Management. Alternatively you can take a series of practical horticultural courses which also contain a theoretical element, leading to a well-rounded knowledge.
When choosing a course, do consider the strengths and weaknesses and that you may have to supplement the training with another source of information. If, for example, your course focuses heavily on plants and plant maintenance, you’ll still need to gain expertise in flowers and herbs.
Start-up costs can be considerable depending on the location you choose and what type of stock you’ll sell. If you choose to offer a particular USP, such as swimming pools, your start-up costs will obviously be higher. Selling a range of garden products, such as decking or pressure washers, will also bump up your costs. A budget of £100,000 would not be unreasonable, and in some cases could be low. Make sure you budget effectively or you could find yourself struggling. Obviously, sound financial backing is essential before you take the plunge.
Insurance and compliance
Insurance will be essential when starting a garden centre. You’ll be dealing extensively with members of the public and so will need public liability insurance as well as professional indemnity insurance. These are particularly important as you’ll likely be providing a lot of advice to customers. If you employ staff, you’ll also need employer’s liability insurance. If you sell specific products, you may need licenses depending on exactly what the products are e.g. a poisons license for selling corrosive liquids.
Your first step
If you have not yet decided to start a garden centre, your first step is to make sure you have the skills and experience necessary to do so. If you don’t, you should get these skills and experience through a mixture of professional training and on-the-job training. Look around for local garden centres that may be able to offer work experience; you may need to start off doing basic tasks and then work your way up.
If you have decided to start your own garden centre, you’ll need to ask the standard business questions such as where you will get your funding and what your USP will be. You’ll also need to ask some industry-specific questions such as:
- Will you grow your own plants or buy them from a wholesaler?
- Will you offer on-site catering?
- Will you offer tertiary services such as garden design or pool installation?
- How will you ensure all plants are disease free?
- How will you cope with seasonal variations common to this industry?
- How will you attract a wide range of demographics e.g. couples and families, and also corporate clients?
- How will you minimise wastage and maximum returns from plants that may be past their best?