For us, it's more than just plants
IT HAS been said that the garden centre as we once knew it is changing.
Gone are the days when garden centres were solely about gardening. Nowadays, garden centres are more and more becoming 'destination centres', where there is an emphasis on the 'experience' and where a diverse range of products and activities are available.
A number of years ago, Irish Hardware Magazine carried an article about how it felt that Cois na hAbhann was one of the garden centres that were leading the way in this trend. If this is the case, I have to admit that it wasn't really a conscious decision on our part. It was more of an organic process which happened to evolve.
Cois na hAbhann is a family-run business which opened in November 2007, just at the end of the Celtic Tiger. Opening a garden centre had been part of Michael and Mary Nolan's plan for a number of years, and as their daughter and my sister Elaine is a horticulturist, it was only natural that she would become involved.
I, on the other hand, was a teacher, who had more or less no experience of the retail trade – with the exception of shopping myself, which I have to admit I was quite a fan of at the time!
However, I took a career break from teaching to try to help get the business of the ground.
As Elaine was a horticulturist, she ran the garden end of the business. I took over the organisation of the interior end of the business. Although I had no retail experience, I have always had a keen interest in interiors, so I set about contacting suppliers to see if we could stock all the various items that I had previously been a fan of buying myself.
And so Cois na hAbhann began. Our aim was to create a quality garden centre with the emphasis on good customer relations. The centre comprises an award winning garden, home and lifestyle centre as well as the Bay Tree Café, which specialises in using locally sourced products to create garden-fresh salads and hearty lunches as well as a large range of homebaked cakes.
Looking back, it was probably a risky move to start up a business at the time, but to be honest there was so much to be done that we didn't have the time to dwell on this and we were optimistic about the challenges that lay ahead.
Indeed, there are a lot of challenges facing the garden centre industry nowadays. It goes without saying that the industry has been hit by the decrease in disposable income.
Overall nationally the consumer spend on garden products is down. Garden centres are also particularly dependent on good weather and the past few bad summers have certainly had an impact on sales.
However, despite these challenges, I believe that there are still opportunities for growth in the market. The diversification of the type of product that is on offer has certainly helped us over the past few years. The fact that we offer a diverse range of products from crystal to soft furnishings, furniture to cookware, jewellery to handbags has certainly helped us, and while plants will always remain at the core of what we do, the fact that we offer such a wide range of products has been a vital component in our success to date.
Despite the challenges that are facing us and the garden centre industry as a whole we are very hopeful for the future.
The recognition that we have received through winning Bord Bia Garden, Home and Lifestyle Centre of the Year (Small) for the past four years has also certainly been a significant factor in helping to get the business well known in the industry.
We were also lucky enough to win the Retail Award from the Wexford Chamber of Commerce last year. It has been an honour to have received these awards and they have certainly played their part in helping to get our business on the map.
Indeed, Wexford in general is quickly developing a reputation for quality in the gardening industry. O'Connor Nurseries from Barntown just outside Gorey has also been recognised many times by Bord Bia and in 2011-12 it won Ornamental Grower of the Year.
Also, the Wexford Garden Trail, which was launched in 2012 and which consists of 21 private gardens, garden centres and specialist nurseries, is proving to be popular with tourists from all over Ireland.
Finally, I would like to thank our loyal customers who have also played their part in helping us to get to the stage we are today. We are privileged to have many a customer who has asked for a brochure to pass on to a friend who they say they know would 'love to visit'. This has proved invaluable and is something which we don't take for granted. We are so grateful for all the support which we have received and hopefully we will continue to do so.