It was one of those rare mornings; the sun was shining, although rain was forecast for later. I had been staring at the patio for weeks thinking that this year we’re going to have some new patio plants in pots to brighten up the view from the kitchen window.

So off we went to Altrincham Garden Centre, a local centre, owned by The Garden Centre Group, some few short miles away. Positioned as a truly local garden centre with a Plant Manager who has 23 years of service. They bill themselves as having a fantastic range of top quality plants, many of which are grown locally or nationally, an ideal place for us to buy our patio plants.

As we approached from the main road there was no directional signage telling us that the entrance was actually round at the back of the main road, although there were some banners on the roadside fencing promoting offers. We found the entrance into the car park and garden centre, although this could have been better identified. I wondered how many customers drove on-past the garden centre unaware of how exactly to get in?

The entrance into the garden centre store was a mixture of plants some on a market stall type fixture and others on metal trolleys, this had the effect of narrowing down the entrance, which struck me as strange and unwelcoming.

Once inside the entrance area I noticed Gardening Club Exclusive Offer point of sale for 5 for £14 plants and Half Price plants along with a Spring Savers Board with both early bird offers for 10% off all purchases before 11am and an early bird breakfast offer before 11am. Shame, it was gone eleven when we arrived and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be informed of  what I’d already missed having just got a matter of a few feet into the garden centre. What I did want to see was some sort of store guide. These places tend to be fairly large and I wanted to know where to go. My favourite garden centre has a great big plan of the centre showing what’s where, so you can easily plot a route to what you want to see. And just in case you are navigationally challenged like me, they even have a little map that you can pick up at the entrance.

Inside the main building we were met with a vista of assorted merchandise, from gardening tools to watering devices, although cluttered, the range of products looked extensive and gave an air of authority to the garden centre, a sense of we know what we are doing. As we went around the salesfloor’s undefined walkways, it became a little confusing of where to go, we kept wandering into different product areas, there seemed little departmental differentiation and little to direct us on our journey through the centre.

The store’s  point of sale as we went round was very noticeable, pale green for some, dark green for others and purple and green for the Gardening Club Exclusive Offer point of sale, although as I wasn’t a member of the club, clearly this wasn’t meant for me!

As we approached the outdoor plant area we noticed in one of the garden furniture sections; a swing hammock, having wanted one for a while we decided to see whether there were any other colour options, and as there were some oily finger marks on the seat, we wanted to know how to clean and maintain the cushion covers? We looked around for a sales assistant; none were to be seen on the salesfloor, although the dark uniforms did make them hard to spot. Having got a male assistant from the cash desk area to come over to us, he curtly told us that there wasn’t any product information because that was the only colour it was done in “what you see is what we have” he told us, and the oily fingerprints were from some child that their parents allowed to run around unsupervised and that it was simple to clean it off with soapy water. He left without trying to sell it to us. As the garden centre had a Childs Play Area, it seemed highly likely that kids would be kids! Unconvinced by his answers, we carried on shopping for our patio plants.

In the outdoor area there was a great selection of plants for the garden. I think I expected to see a Patio Plant section, but as there wasn’t – maybe we are unusual in wanting to find plants for our patio? – we meandered around until we saw one that fitted our wants, but just to check I went and asked one of the many plant assistants whether it would be suitable for our patio, he told us yes and how to look after it, but failed to ask how many I wanted or tell us whether there would be others suitable for the patio.

We went on to have a coffee and cake at the Cafe and also visited the Shuropody and Cotton Traders shops, which were welcoming, engaging and enjoyable as they had both products and people that made them stand out from the rest of the garden centre.

So, we ended up just buying the one patio plant. Strangely, at the end of our shopping journey as we were paying and going, we were introduced and told about the Gardening Club  and its’ exclusive offers, a little late for us to take advantage of all those purple and green special offers, but, maybe next time, if we come back.

SHOPPER Viewpoint:

Imagine a garden centre that sets out to give customers a consistent shopping experience, makes it easy for them to shop the store and find their way around it, all geared to informing, educating and engaging with shoppers with both point of sale and sales people who are evident, visible and knowledgeable. imagine too being invited into a club that saves you money and encourages you to buy more at the beginning of the shopping journey and goes on to reach out to shoppers throughout their everyday lives, giving them reasons to visit again and again.

In  the future, The Garden Centre Group can capitalise  on all this and more, delivering a garden centre business that is different, better and more special than all the rest, delivering a truly helpful shopping experience every time. Imagine then telling people that’s what you do?

Are The Garden Centre Group missing some tricks? We think so.

Anonymous Shopper for The Market Creative, Manchester

For more details contact: graham@themarketcreative.com