The rise of garden centres and licensing… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes on how the retailers are green fingered when it comes to growing their licensed offer.

There was a time when garden centres were garden centres – selling plants, gardening equipment, accessories and related goods. I managed to visit one of my local garden centres last week – Squires in Frensham – specifically to pick up a gardening item. A soil testing kit. Titchmarsh, Don and Dimmock have got a lot to answer for!

However I immediately got distracted by all the non-gardening products on sale. Garden centres offer much more than garden products these days so there was quite a lot to see, with a strong presence for licensing as well. The shop was actually going through a stock change switching out winter stock for spring/summer lines. This focus on seasons and seasonal product is another feature of garden centres to note.

It is good to see them open and trading as they have faced challenges like lots of retailers during lockdown. This branch of Squires is a good example of how garden centres are in fact multi function retail sites. In normal times it would have a cafe. It also has a Farm Shop and a couple of other ancillary gardening business operating on the site. They have become retail hubs.

A dedicated space for toys and games highlighted some key licences.
A dedicated space for toys and games highlighted some key licences.

The Squires in Frensham has a large dedicated space for toys and games. There was some good coverage for licensing and licensed ranges in this section. I am guessing the buyer recognises the value of well known brand names in the toy category, as well as the value of popular licences. It is likely that a significant percentage of toy purchasing in garden centres is not by children and rather by parents, grandparents and other family members as gifts or treats. Brand recognition is important in this context.

Highlights included a strong LEGO offering including Harry Potter lines. There was also a large supply of jigsaw puzzles, with Gibson’s seemingly a key supplier in this category. Its signature blue brand colour stood out well. The majority of the puzzles were art-based ones which I believe include a lot of art used under licence by Gibson’s. I guess there is no great surprise that jigsaw puzzles sell well in a garden centre setting and, of course, jigsaw puzzles have been strong sellers during lockdown.

Also housed in the toy and game section was a range of pop culture gifting products including Harry Potter spectacle cases and Star Wars stationery lines. Again, a reminder of how franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter can keep going through clever selection of product and designs coupled with a commitment to develop fan friendly products.

This Coronation Street title is among those offering good brand recognition.
This Coronation Street title is among those offering good brand recognition.

Like most garden centres, this branch of Squires also has space dedicated to books. This is across all categories from children’s books through to local history. Of course, there are gardening books as well. There were plenty of examples of licensed books on sale including formats like books in tins including Marvel Avengers Infinity Wars from Centum through to Mickey & Minnie Birthday books. The latter being a reminder that garden centres are ‘go to’ retailers for gift purchases and I hazard a guess last minute gift purchases.

Interestingly, licensing featured quite heavily in the general interest illustrated books on sale, but here again the book buyer has been careful to select titles that have brand recognition such as The Treasures of Coronation Street a heavily illustrated book that focuses on Coronation Street memorabilia.

Garden centres are a location for publishers to sell books to consumers who aren’t frequent visitors to bookshops, while it is also a channel where they can invigorate backlist titles with value pricing offers for example selling big format hardback books for under £10.

Burgon & Ball has enjoyed success with its RHS-branded range.
Burgon & Ball has enjoyed success with its RHS-branded range.

Given the setting it was no surprise to see some RHS licensed products on sale. The RHS has a broad range of products including garden supply products but also including gifts, accessories and books. It has built up a strong group of licensees, many of whom are long-term partners and sector specialists.

Some of the products are logo-led with the RHS conveying trust to consumers, while others are design-led tapping into the RHS’ design archive. A good example of the latter was a range of RHS kneelers from Burgon & Ball ‘The British Bloom Collection’ featuring a bold and colourful botanical print.

Apta's range of Wallace & Gromit garden statues and ornaments are a good example of how suppliers have adapted their offer.
Apta's range of Wallace & Gromit garden statues and ornaments are a good example of how suppliers have adapted their offer.

It is always good to see your ‘own’ products on a store visit and I was pleased to see Apta’s range of Wallace & Gromit garden statues and ornaments on sale. This range has been out for a while and makes good use of Aardman’s character guides with lots of fun poses and settings for the characters. This is very much a gift orientated range and a good example of how suppliers have adapted their offering to appeal to a broader range of garden centre visitors.

Another strong category for garden centres is of course seeds and seed packets. There are a number of well established brands in this category, but licensing plays a strong role in this category as well. Johnsons Seeds has a Sarah Raven range. Sarah is a well known gardener who has developed her own mail order business, has a range of books and also runs residential courses.

Working with a supplier like Johnsons extends her reach and gets her into a more mass market product setting. While Johnsons is tapping into her profile, expertise and lifestyle positioning. Sarah Raven’s range is described as ‘brilliant for bees & butterflies’ giving it further appeal and a way of standing aside from other ranges.

The Mr Men Little Miss seed range from Thompson & Morgan uses the characters well.
The Mr Men Little Miss seed range from Thompson & Morgan uses the characters well.

It was also interesting to a range of Mr Men & Little Miss seed packets on sale. This range from Thompson & Morgan uses the characters really well, is bright and colourful. They have tried to match characters to specific seeds thinking of colour, form and shape. This is a nice touch and a good example of a licensee delving a bit deeper into a brand to produce better products.

Kitchenware and homewares are also a strong component of garden centres these days. There were two celebrity ranges on sale in Squires – one from James Martin and the other from Sophie Conran. The latter range was on discount. This reveals a little about one of the challenges of working with garden centres. Given their seasonal nature and commitment to turning over stock, I imagine it is easy to be seen as a slow seller in that context. That said the up side of being featured in garden centres probably outweighs that risk and bigger suppliers can probably manage the risk of ranges being price marked down.

Licensed greeting cards featured a lot of garden-related and heritage brands.
Licensed greeting cards featured a lot of garden-related and heritage brands.

Another solid category for garden centres appears to be greetings cards. It seems all garden centres dedicate good space to cards. There is a broad range of licensing featured including garden related brands and a lot of heritage brands including the National Trust. Garden centres seem to be go to places for card buying and based on my visit people seem to like the breadth of cards on show and appreciate being able to browse through ranges.

It is good to see licensing thriving in a garden centre environment. As noted earlier licensed brands are well suited to this retail sector because of their cross generational appeal and the high recognition factor. Also I think in some categories like books where discounting versus marked price operates, licences are good bets as the retailer can position these kind of offers positively to their consumers.

I left the shop without my soil testing kit. I got distracted. However Alan, Monty and Charlie can rest easy as I managed to buy a kit the following day in another branch of Squires. Good to know that you can still buy gardening products in a garden centre.

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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