Creating the Retail Environment

Just how important is it to have the right building, the right lighting and the right space?

In the fifth of a series of features, for Garden Centre Retail, our Director Paul Pleydell looks at retail areas - making the best of the space available and giving some structure to the retail layout to improve performance.

It is often said that the building you retail from doesn't really matter. I disagree. I believe the place you retail from says a huge amount about your business, but more than this, it does a huge amount to make your business more effective.

Getting a garden centre building right is a tricky process. It must function correctly for the way your business works (retail, stores, toilets, staff etc); it must meet the requirements of planning and building regulations (as well as fire, environmental health and equality legislation); and it needs to look great.

Today we surround ourselves with products for which prototypes have been made. There is no prototype for a new building, but at least with today's technology, it is possible to see what a building will look like with photorealistic images, and to understand how it will perform using sophisticated software.

Good Looking Buildings
One of my constant aims is to promote the design of 'timeless' buildings, by recognising and therefore avoiding architectural fashions. The design life of a building can be anything from 25 to over 100 years. When clothes go out of fashion they can be put to the back of the wardrobe and (possibly) brought back out as retro or vintage 20 years later, but with buildings, it stays there for all to see - forever.

The building should be memorable and distinctive and promote the values of the business (rural, modern, funky?). For some this involves building a cost effective 'box' and then treating the main frontage to some 'cosmetic surgery' - a skill mastered in Disneyland where Main Street is lined with false facades fronting faceless warehouse sized buildings. For others a holistic approach is more appropriate where the character of the building pervades the whole site.

Yes, it is simple and cost effective to put up steel frame buildings clad with composite panels, but it is also important to make sure a building uses attractive materials, is well proportioned and creates spaces that people want to go into and enjoy being inside; places that complement and enhance your retail offer.

I would suggest avoiding plagiarism. Don't copy other garden centres; create buildings that are fitting with the site, the local area and the business. It used to be that garden centre buildings were modular, based upon the old style glasshouses and could be bought 'off the peg' but now almost every building is bespoke and with the advice of an experienced professional you can ensure that the building works operationally, looks good and is also cost effective.

Places for People
We all gravitate towards our favourite restaurants, pubs or shops without sometimes realising why. At a basic human level we need to make sure our customers are warm and dry, that they are safe and that they feel secure and therefore relaxed - an ideal frame of mind for shopping! It is helpful to view how garden centres function in hotter climates, where perhaps a small till area is shaded from the sun and bulbs are stored in a cold room but everything else is outside as it is hot and dry. It makes you realise that the main job our garden centre buildings are doing is protecting our customers and our stock from the great British weather.

Effective Structures
New buildings (and alterations to existing buildings) are required to comply with the Building Regulations. Separate to planning permission, these regulations are in place to make sure that buildings are well constructed, safe and efficient to meet the needs of the users. They control such issues as energy efficiency, fire and structural integrity. However they are seen by many as an obstruction to building when in fact they are helping to create buildings that will reduce your energy costs and ensure buildings are safe and accessible to all.

The downside is that the regulations are getting tighter every year, mostly in a drive to reduce the nation's carbon footprint; and so the traditional garden centre building using glass and/or polycarbonate is almost impossible to achieve. If it doesn't fail on insulation grounds it will fail on solar gain. Complex software is now required to ensure a building receives a 'pass'. The regulations also impact upon heating systems and the requirement for some form of renewable energy, often onsite. Our recent schemes have used solar/Photo Voltaic (PV), air source and ground source heat pumps and also biomass boilers. There are currently good funding deals available on these technologies through the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) so as well as keeping customers warm and comfortable it can have a significant impact on operating costs.

Future proofing
Whilst we all have opinions, none of us can truly predict the future for our industry so we must ensure we design in some flexibility. This could be as simple as creating spaces where different product departments can expand and contract to suit the market. Most garden centre buildings have two main zones, indoor heated and covered open sided, although the newer Dobbies sites have introduced an intermediate 'cold house' - an enclosed and unheated (frost protected) zone. I can see the benefits of this but also the loss of some retail flexibility. But being unheated also means insulation regulations don't apply in the same way and a more 'glasshousey' feel can be achieved with higher levels of natural light - something we all like to see. There are a few well known sites where the whole retail offer is under cover, and the ultimate, at Zwolle in Holland, where everything, including the parking, is covered.

You could go as far as thinking about alternative future uses for the buildings but for now I think a garden centre should look and feel like a garden centre - whatever that happens to be at the time, therefore we should all strive to create great places where people really want to be. We need to remember that buildings really do matter.