David Standing: changing the customer demographic

David Standing, commercial director of AIS, discusses how to change customer demographic.

Garden centres in recent years have been great at spreading the business risk away from weather dependent key seasonal times such as Easter and May bank holidays by diversifying from core horticulture related areas into other categories or services.

This most notably began with Christmas decorations, a move which, if my memory serves me right, started at least 25 years ago and has since spread right across the sector and gone from strength to strength to the extent that, apart from some flagship department stores, they?re the first port of call when jingle bells start to ring.

As well as giving customers more reasons to visit, it is a category that appeals right across the demographic and has great family appeal. That?s been built on by staging other attractions such as ice skating and circuses and, in the bigger centres, what?s almost become a science of managing grottos with multiple Father Christmases. Apologies if any children or believers are reading this but none of them are the real one anyway!

Prior to my current role I spent some time working with garden centres as an independent consultant or in conjunction with the GCA and the HTA in respect of their business improvement scheme.

Now, at the buying group AIS, we currently have around 30 garden centre members including the two that regularly vie for the GCA Destination Centre of the Year, Bents and Barton Grange, as well as other sizeable and high quality centres.

In the last 15 years the scale of diversification has gathered pace and some other examples of that would include farm shops or delicatessens, pick your own crops, talks and events and, of course, a massive shift in caf?s and restaurants.

I?m a big fan of garden centres and often cite what they?ve done as an example to our members, particularly department stores, who are faced with the challenge of creating theatre and attracting footfall.

However, there is still a perception in many cases that garden centres are for ?older people? and their general customer demographic is undoubtedly skewed that way. I asked some of my team who are in the 30-40 age range their take on garden centres and they reinforced that perception ? but there were some great positives.

We?re based in the Midlands and two had recently visited Coppice Garden Centre near Tamworth and were impressed by the style and quality of the restaurant and another, with a young family, spoke about the playground space and other child-friendly facilities at Melbicks.

Garden centres are some of the best exponents of using loyalty schemes or harnessing customer information but I think more can be done to segment such data in order to target different demographics and build on the strength that has come through range and service diversification. A few years ago I saw the detail behind the top two customers of a particular centre.

Each was spending around ?2,000 a year but one was a landscaper who had visited only twice and the other was a little old lady who was in almost every day for a tea and cake and the occasional gift. Yet each received the same promotional communications which were, by definition, wasteful and/or irrelevant to one or other of them. Clearly that is an extreme example but would have applied to greater or lesser degrees right across the customer database. I don?t know if that?s still the case today but I?d bet that examples like that can still be found.

I?d like to close with the view that garden centres should keep looking for new reasons for people to visit but should also give thought to how best to broaden their demographic profiles and reach new and existing customers in a way that is relevant to them and the different reasons for them to come.

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