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Thinking outside of the box 3 – Hillmount comes to Cheshire

Cheshire is grand for Hillmount

The third of our “Thinking outside the box” articles features Hillmount who while running three garden centres in Northern Ireland have this year opened a new centre on the mainland in Cheshire. That’s certainly outside the normal box for garden centre expansion…

At first glance, when a successful Northern Ireland garden centre business chooses to invest £1m in opening its fourth store not in its own territory but on the English mainland during an ongoing pandemic, in a trading climate still grappling with Brexit, it could be seen as a bit of gamble…

But it might turn out to have been a stroke of genius.

For the Mercer family, owners of Hillmount, which runs lifestyle-orientated garden centres in Belfast, Bangor and Ards, the move was far from speculative. It was in large measure a premeditated solution to supply problems caused by Brexit, as well as a desire to expand the family business in a growing market.

“Why did we do it when we did? Brexit was top of the list,” said Robin Mercer (67), whose wife Edith and sons Alan and David are all involved with the business.

Over the previous two years, Hillmount had built up useful turnover supplying garden furniture and barbecues to UK mainland consumers, via its website, but Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol changed the dynamic. “With all the talk on the news about the protocol and Brexit, if you lived in England would you want to actually risk ordering anything from Northern Ireland at the moment?” Robin told us.

It was also becoming difficult to recruit suppliers, many of whom did not want to commit to deliveries to the province because of the additional bureaucracy involved (although, apparently, existing suppliers largely remained loyal).

The answer, the family felt, was to establish a mainland base, removing the perceived obstacle to export and import, arrange their own transport to the Northern Ireland stores and further expand their UK sales. Robin felt opportunities to expand the business in his home territory were limited. “A lot of garden centres are popping up over here (NI) but with a population of just 1.75 million, it doesn’t justify so many. With the population In England, it’s a different matter.”

Where should they set up? There was a front runner. David Mercer, an airline pilot, and his wife Gemma, who had a cabin crew career, lived in Manchester, but David had not had work since February 2020 and Gemma had given birth to their baby son earlier this year. Both were looking for a new challenge and a new Hillmount store in the region would provide it. Gemma would manage the shop, David the delivery logistics. So, the search was on for suitable premises within easy reach of the couple’s home.

The initial plan was to rent premises while they trialled the project but then, a smartly fitted out new-build, a former American Golf store, came on the market. It was the US company’s flagship UK store, which the company decided to re-locate from Warrington to the golf course it had recently acquired two miles away.

It took just three weeks and two days from finding the site to picking up the keys. And Hillmount Cheshire opened in August at Warrington, around 20 minutes by car from one of the UK’s biggest and most successful destination centres, Bents Garden & Home at Glazebury.

“It was in a perfect position, had its own car park and there’s a massive Co-op next door,” Robin said. There was no room for expansion, though, but as the retail offer would be restricted to a garden lifestyle product range, Christmas trees and decorations and some growing media, a cafe and planteria were not required.

A 6,000 sq.ft warehouse about 10 minutes from the shop will take care of Hillmount’s stock-holding, which has soared ten-fold over the past two years. There’s an option to take another 6k sq.ft. should trade volumes justify it. As luck would have it, there’s also a recycling facility for trade cardboard and plastic right next door.

The ex-golf equipment showroom provides an ideal setting for outdoor leisure sales

Why did we do it when we did? Brexit was top of the list

Using all of their leading Belfast garden centre expertise, the Mercers aim to make a mark in Cheshire too.

During their search for premises, the Mercers had been offered traditional garden centre sites on the mainland. “But that wasn’t what we wanted,” Alan Mercer said. “We know from the experience of our other three stores that the café and planteria were tricky to get right. Basically, if you get it wrong, its costs you a lot of money. We just wanted to concentrate on the garden lifestyle product.”

Trade at Hillmount Cheshire was brisk for the first few weeks, then, in common with much of the rest of the industry, slowed up in October. “But even now, in November, we have just sold two sets of garden furniture, which is lovely. Now we’re wondering whether we might be too busy come springtime!”

Robin does not think Bents have anything to worry about. “We are only a drop in the ocean compared to operators like them,” he said. “They’re a different proposition, it’s a day out for their customers.”

The mainland operation takes turnover pressure off the centres, back home, where obtaining plant supplies is among the biggest challenges, with the ban on imports of growing media and bark products from the mainland still in place and at the time of writing still unresolved. “Getting plants from the mainland has been a total disaster this year,” Robin said. “With our rose supplier, it cost £3,000 to get the roses over and £500 to get the trolleys back, so now they’re not interested. We’re having to look to Europe for supplies and the south of Ireland. The whole protocol thing is ridiculous, going on and on, and the rules seem to keep changing every week.

“It’s nice to get into the English market but we’re not wanting to tread on people’s toes. Our suppliers are happy to check out the distances from our competitors to avoid overlaps. We’re not there to cut prices or do damage, but the population’s there. I think there’s room for everybody.”