When you pop down to your local high street, you probably expect to see a mixture of clothing stores, coffee shops, homeware stores, banks, cafes and express supermarkets. But what about a garden centre?

It’s a sight that might surprise many of us, but it’s also one that’s starting to become increasingly familiar as part of the rapid growth of the garden centre industry over the last few years. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the reasons behind this growth and what the future might hold for garden centres in the UK.

Garden centres have been thriving

While the pandemic and associated lockdowns had a negative impact on the bottom line of many retailers, garden centres were quickly designated as ‘essential’ by the government and allowed to remain fully open (due to their positive impact on physical and mental wellbeing). This, combined with an influx of new customers who took up gardening during the lockdowns, helped to drive the industry to a value of approximately £3 billion in 2022

Another contributing factor to this growth is how many garden centres have expanded their product and service offerings, establishing themselves as destinations rather than simply places that sell plants. Homeware, food, outdoor living, pets and gifts are just some of the additional sectors that many have expanded into, providing customers with a retail experience that’s more reminiscent of department stores than traditional garden centres. 

Garden centres as lifestyle retailers

Embracing lifestyle retail is a smart move. With the loss of established names like BHS and Debenhams – and a staggering 83% of UK department store space shutting down for good between 2016 and 2021 – there’s a distinct gap in the market for retailers who can appeal to that lifestyle customer base. 

Garden centres have a lot of advantages when it comes to filling that gap. They’re usually located in attractive, often rural, surroundings on the outskirts of towns and cities. They often have room for ample parking and retail expansion. And they’re generally easy to access. All of which combines to create the ideal environment for department store-esque shopping.    

But what about those high street stores we mentioned earlier? What role do they play in the future of garden centres?

Garden centres on the high street

The company leading the charge is Dobbies Garden Centre, the largest garden centre retailer in the UK. Dobbies has 76 centres located throughout the UK and six of these are what they call ‘Little Dobbies’ stores. You’ll find them on high streets in major towns and cities, and they offer a unique, urban garden centre experience. 

Case Study: Little Dobbies, Cheltenham

We were asked to design, produce and install bespoke display fixtures for the latest Little Dobbies store. The fixtures needed to match the look and feel of other Little Dobbies, while staying true to the aesthetics of the main estate.

The project had a tight turnaround as the fixtures were required by the store’s opening. We rose to the challenge and produced, supplied and installed 16 fixtures including the main customer till hub and coffee unit.

Speaking at the launch of the first store in Edinburgh, CEO Graeme Jenkins described it as featuring “gardening essentials for city centre residents” and showcasing “some of the extensive ranges available at our larger stores and at dobbies.com”. 

With a carefully curated range of convenient houseplants, small space gardening products and home décor items on display, the stores are specifically targeting the needs of urban gardeners and acting as gateways to the full Dobbies’s range. It’s a different proposition to the larger stores, but still allows customers to make those aspirational lifestyle purchases. It also neatly addresses the growing popularity of houseplants, particularly among the younger generations, where social media sites like Instagram have proven to be a rich ground for gardening- and plant-based content. 

Garden centres as the new department stores?

The question of whether garden centres have become the new department stores (or are on their way to becoming them) is a complex one to answer. But it’s interesting to note how department stores themselves and other leading lifestyle retailers have branched out into the gardening sphere. 

The likes of House of Fraser, Selfridges and M&S all have gardening furniture, gardening tool and/or plant ranges. Next launched mini Homebase garden centres within six of their stores in the summer of 2021. And through Waitrose Garden, the John Lewis Partnership has a dedicated online garden centre to rival the traditional physical stores. It’s clear that the potential to merge homeware, food, clothing, furniture and more with gardening products is one that’s proving attractive to more than just garden centres themselves. 

Time will tell what the future holds for garden centres and whether they truly will supersede department stores in the public consciousness. But given the vibrancy of the market, it’s a future that’s looking ripe with possibilities. 

Want to find out more about our work with Dobbies?

Discover how we helped them to transform their flagship store