Garden Centre Shopping

Specialist retailers are a dying breed.

Oops, there goes another one! We are only a week or so into a new year and another well known retailer has fallen off the end of the high street. Jessops, the UK’s favourite camera retailer, until now, is on the verge of administration, no longer able to compete with pricing and availability online for what have become, for the most part, commodity electrical products. Something like 10% of traditional “brick” electrical retailers have disappeared from the UK over the last year or so, not just from our high streets, but from the more favoured out of town shopping locations too. Now it looks like Jessops’ 200 stores are going too.

Electrical retailers are a rapidly dying breed because what they sell is so much easier and cost effective to sell online and even those few who could provide great face to face advice found people using them to make their choices before going to buy online anyway. I’ve certainly found that, apart from price, availability was a major issue and the last two high-value electrical purchases I have made failed in shops that just didn’t have the stock, or even know when it would come in, so I went online and got both things delivered the next day. Oh, and they were both quite a bit cheaper too. The stand-alone high street electrical retail business model just doesn’t work anymore and sadly, when that happens, specialist retailers have nowhere to go.

Electrical goods still seem to be selling well in department stores like John Lewis, that splendid jewel in the UK’s retail crown. Is that anything to do with employee ownership and levels of attention and service, which are certainly high by UK standards? Or, have they just got better availability and stock control? Or, is it that, unlike high streets, department stores, and garden centres for that matter, have a portfolio approach to retail that allows them greater product flexibility, as well as offering more of a destination shopping experience? Also, although John Lewis, and others like it, have a well developed online presence, the majority of its goods are less threatened by online retailers, as they are lower value, so people are happy to buy them on the spot rather than search for them online after an in-store reconnaissance, and they are also often own branded, or have limited availability elsewhere.

In garden centres these days you can also buy an amazing array of relatively low cost impulse products, after you have bought your difficult-to-sell-online plants, and had your cup of coffee, or lunch. They have become a curious mixture of destination in their own right and souks for middle class folk with gardens. You are as likely to see people leaving with crockery and clothes as you are with plants at certain times of the year. You would have to be a very special garden centre these days to survive by just selling plants. Perhaps that’s the future of retail in the post-specialist era?

The retailers who seem to be doing best in this new online world are ones that sell low cost products, or where there is a personal element to the sale, like clothes, and which combine many products under one roof and ideally lunch, or coffee, too. The developing retail format of our age is the “garden centre like destination shopping experience”, almost always out of town these days, as the highly economically segmented high streets can no longer compete; few specialists seem to be able to survive on their own, rather than as a portfolio of products that attract the browsing visitor in search of some retail inspiration.

Of course, Jessops have not been on the firmest of ground for some time, doing a debt for equity swap three years ago to avoid a similar fate.  Maybe it should have seen the writing on the wall when it found it was the only retailer in its class. Like HMV, it is not a good thing to find that you have no directly comparable completion; rather it is a quiet warning of likely impending doom. Interesting then that the last CEO left Jessops last year to join HMV!


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