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Why the end of Britain’s biggest garden centre group could be good news for gardeners

Dobbies Garden centre
Dobbies garden centres now redeem Wyevale gift vouchers Credit: Georgi Mabee

Wyevale sold the last of its 145 garden centres this month. Britain’s biggest garden retail group, which dates back to 1932, is no more. But what will this mean for gardeners?

New signage has gone up at old Wyevales around the country, but the centres have seen more than superficial changes since being taken over by 57 different operators during the past year. As well as the greater choice a broader ownership gives, benefits of the big sell-off could include better-value plants and products, improved environments and re-energised staff.

Many Wyevales have been bought by garden centre groups such as British Garden Centres and Dobbies, with 37 acquisitions each. Just a dozen Wyevales were sold for housing, showing that retailers believe there is still money to be made in the industry. The sale has earned Wyevale’s previous private equity owner, Guy Hands’ Terra Firma, which bought Wyevale in 2012, an estimated £450 million.

Shoppers are also likely to find a better ambience as old Wyevales are spruced up by new owners aiming for a more upmarket customer. They are revamping their stock as fast as they can and upgrading fittings.

Garden retail is now about refits, aiming for a John Lewis-style ambience with lots of cafés, cacti, clothing and candles. Many of the concessions, such as WH Smith and Costa Coffee, will go. Blue Diamond managing director Alan Roper, who has bought 17 Wyevales, says these franchises “betray all the values of a garden centre. People expect to walk in and not be faced with elements of the high street.” Some 95 per cent of the chain’s 6,000 employees have transferred to new employers.

While Blue Diamond has a slick and successful formula of home, garden and restaurant retailing, quirkiness is on the cards, too, at a few former Wyevales. Antique reclamation company English Salvage has taken over at Hereford Wellington. Cobbins, a bedding nursery, has bought a Wyevale in Worthing; and Rosebourne, a food-led garden centre group (farmshop, cafe), has taken over Solihull.

Business surveys show Wyevale generally priced plants and products higher than its rivals, so customers are likely to get better value at many revived Wyevales, such as the four taken over by hardware chain In-Excess.

Wyevale began as a nursery in Hereford (still in business) before the war and moved into garden centres in the Sixties. The now-defunct garden centre business grew massively in the Nineties during the Groundforce-influenced gardening boom.

Wyevale has changed ownership multiple times in the past 15 years. There was the DIY era, the acquisition era and the owned-by-the-bank-because-of-debt era. The Guy Hands private equity epoch has not been wholly successful either, but it is one of his better investments (he experienced mega-losses with EMI and Four Seasons care homes).

Looking ahead, garden retailers feel little threat from the high street’s nemesis, internet sales. Gardeners have been slow to shop online. They like to touch and feel plants. However, Dobbies (incidentally, where Wyevale gift vouchers can still be redeemed), uses Ocado for online fulfilment and could become the UK’s first online garden centre.

Garden centres are historically fairly recession-proof too, with their low average spend and cheap leisure experience offer.

The industry has taken a kicking lately from the media over its use of peat, plastics and pesticides, but for most customers that is outweighed by free parking, a safe atmosphere, cafés to linger in and plants to engage the senses, meaning the future looks bright for garden centres – and for those who shop in them.