A visit to the 25,000 m² Italian garden centre Valle dei fiori in Mantua is an excellent lesson in “back to basics” for garden retail. The store is a horticultural concept that pleads for consistency and loyalty to the core business, focussing on living green, plants and flowers. CEO Marco Orlandelli gave an interesting seminar at the DIY&Homing fair in Kortrijk (Belgium) with this surprising message.
The Valle Dei Fiori has been the life's work of the Orlandelli family, whose latest three generations have made the “flower valley” a remarkable example for garden centres who are ever more tempted to extend their range with garden furniture, barbecues, swimming pools, clothing and Christmas decorations.
Back to basics
Gardening has a magnetic effect on customers and their purchasing habits, as shown by the trend to make homes – and indeed, sometimes offices – an oasis of serenity and self-development. An average growth of 11 to 14% makes gardening one of the most important sectors to generate revenue and margin for DIY businesses, so many announce important investment projects to expand their gardening department. This is of course bad news for the real garden centres, who find it increasingly difficult to make a competitive stand against the stores combining DIY and gardening.
Marco Orlandelli's solution is simple, but remarkable: go back to the roots and focus 100% on a garden centre's core business: selling plants and flowers, and a few tools and accessories like fertiliser. No more, no less. He sees three parameters to determine the professionalism of a garden centre: infrastructure, staff and management – three ways to distinguish specialised garden centres from DIY-garden centre combinations, as it were.
Most DIY stores do not possess the necessary professional infrastructure, according to Orlandelli. A greenhouse with suitable displays and watering systems is an absolute necessity for businesses selling fresh plants: customers punish any withered plants immediately. Orlandelli thinks this is the best way for garden centres to outshine DIY stores: invest in an outstanding infrastructure, with special attention for the illumination, ventilation, space and floor coating. The Italian is a fierce advocate of horizontal displays and rejects the traditional vertical displays that are so often used in Belgian garden centres.
The second parameter, professional staff, is more difficult to achieve: it is not only hard to find the best employees, but it is even harder to hire them, as the profit margins in the gardening area are very limited. Orlandelli recommends a close cooperation with horticultural schools to use internships for mutual benefit.
Management is the last parameter. Coping with the strong seasonality in the gardening sector requires mastering, and coordinating, skills in purchasing, logistic and sales management.
Retailers all over the world listen to, and make use of, Valle dei fiori's advice and its CEO Marco Orlandelli has become something like an international garden consultant, wielding the tools of range choice, store location and display techniques. Amongst other projects, Orlandelli and his team designed the gardening department of the world's largest DIY store in the world (Epicenter in Kiev, with 56,000 m²), dividing it in four worlds: the warm greenhouse, the cold greenhouse, the four season greenhouse and the shadow nursery.
An interesting design innovation is a software tool used in Valle dei fiori: when customers bring a picture of their garden, seconds after scanning it the system produces an image of the ideal garden, with tailored plants and flowers.
Orlandelli's exposé ends with two parts of wisdom that are almost as old as the stones of Mantua. The first: customers' buying habits in a garden centre are connected to the emotional impact of flowers and plants. The second: the answers to frequently asked questions are always found in the greenhouse, standing in the flower soil and talking to the customer. By sticking to these truths, Valle dei fiori has been able to expand nationwide in Italy and even to survive the recent recession with little or no harm.
- Thierry Coeman, Retail Dynamics