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Tales from the shop floor – Mark Portman at Camden Garden Centre

Tal e s f ro m t h e

s h o p f l o or

Mark Portman, UK Managing Director of Evergreen Garden Care, brushed up on his customer care skills by spending a September afternoon working in London’s Camden Garden Centre.

It doesn’t matter how high up you are on the industry ladder, gaining an understanding of the customers who buy and ultimately use gardening products is one of the most valuable insights in the world of garden retail. The best way to find out is to actually spend time on the shop floor, but when time is so precious this can be hard to organise.

This autumn Mark Portman from Evergreen Garden Care and Peter Hulatt, Managing Director of Camden Garden Centre, London coordinated diaries and as a result, Mark spent an enjoyable afternoon serving customers, collating orders and answering telephone queries. “I was really looking forward to the experience but was surprised how nervous I was when I first worked the till and then again when answering the customer queries on the phone,” says Mark.

As well as a thriving and profitable business among the hustle and bustle of life near Kings Cross Station, Camden Garden Centre is also a social enterprise project enhancing, through work and training, the employability of those with additional needs and a history of being out of work. Not surprisingly then the first thing Peter did was to go through a few bits of basic training about safe lifting and manual handling.. This is extremely important as Camden is a small site with just 20 parking spaces and little storage room. Its delivery service is vital and relied upon by customers.

Camden has around 10,000 customers signed up to its reward card programme so Mark quickly found out that checking out items at the till is more than just taking the money. Mark had to also link customers to their reward cards to see if they could claim any special offers, give gardening advice and organise delivery dates.

Peter Hulatt describes his till staff as ‘ambassadors of the garden centre’. “They are integral to the smooth running of the garden centre, and the last person customers see when they leave,” he says. Mark was curious to know how the staff dealt with queues and asked if they felt under pressure to rush. Peter’s advice is not to rush but to get as many tills open as possible and see if a member of staff can talk to those in the queue reassuring them everything is being done.

One of Mark’s sales of around £400 included 20 bags of growing media and a tricky calculation.

I was really looking forward to the experience but was surprised how nervous I was..

The customer wanted to know how many bags to buy to fill a pot of a known size so Mark and Peter worked it out longhand. However, says Mark, this has been made easier. “We have a calculator on our website where you can input the dimensions of the planter and it calculates how much compost you need. The second is that the back of our new bags of growing media will show how many pots, planters or hanging baskets each one can fill.”

Mark’s product knowledge is also tested in the store room. In recent times, the range of sundries at Camden has reduced with many ranges now including the top ten products only. This is partly due to space restrictions. “We review it regularly and go for the products we know cover all bases,” says Peter.

Conversely, says Peter, the number of lines in the plantaria as increased partly because of Brexit and having to find other nurseries now not supplying garden centres.

While manning the phones, Mark took calls from gardeners wanting advice on topics ranging from how to change the colour or hydrangeas to the best growing media for containerised blueberries. “I didn’t think this was going to be quite so difficult” says Mark, who adds: “Well hopefully they’ll be pleased we’ve come back to them within five minutes. They’ve all said thank you very much and promised to come back to complete the sale.”

A development has also come as a result of the blueberry call. Currently the smaller 20kg and 10kg bags of growing media have a carry handle which

Mark’s horticultural and product knowledge was stretched throughout his time at Camden Garden Centre. often breaks. “We are now going to review the need for handles on the smaller bags of compost,” says Mark.

Mark’s experience at Camden proved to be both useful and fun. “Peter has a lovely team here at Camden. They have been helping me understand how to work the tills, how to manage the calls from customers and stocking the shelves. But what has come across really clearly is they are really customer focused.

They engage with all customers and they have a positive attitude. Their product knowledge levels are high and they have a real passion for what they do.”

Would you like to invite a senior industry figure to come and have a Real Life Retail Experience in your centre?

Back in 2005 GTN carried a series of these features involving Nick Davies, Edward Conroy and David Arnold so the GTN team would love to come and capture more days like the one at Camden Garden Centre for future issues.

Just drop an e-mail to trevor@ pottingshedpress.co.uk and we can synchronise diaries!