The Fixer: Helping the Oak Garden Centre to show its customers the way

The Oak Garden Centre is based in affluent Chatteris, and is owned and managed by Brad White, who runs the business with his fiancé Jo and his mum and dad – David and Lynn White. In spite of its location and previous success, recently the business became unstuck – a common story for many retailers today. Oak is a business selling plants, landscaping and gardening products, which the recession has left looking and performing far from its best. That’s why the owners got involved in the hit BBC TV show The Fixer with Alex Polizzi and myself.

When I was first called in, it was as a secret shopper. I visited at Christmas and was amazed that so little had been done to develop a seasonal gift and décor offer and coffee shop – both great ways to get people to visit garden centres in winter.

As a shopper, the place was underwhelming and unappealing. It was understocked, disorganised, without character and unloved, a chaotic mess within four forlorn greenhouses. Outside was even worse. I thought the recent bad weather had given everything a thorough battering. Alex had started to work with the family and there were some encouraging signs of improvement. Overall, it was evident a catastrophe had taken place, but they seemed to be getting back on their feet.

One of the biggest issues was the shop layout, it was like a frustrating maze and impossible to shop. Twofour asked me to give my feedback to the family. I brought the issues to life, explaining how counterproductive these were, and how we could fix them.

So I started to experiment. I closed off doors, introduced new signage and focal points etc. My intention was to create easier, more effective navigation using a ‘race track’ layout to get shoppers to visit all parts of the space. To prove the effectiveness of the revised layout, we installed hidden cameras and a private viewing area, where I sat with the family and Alex to see how a group of invited shoppers moved through the revised space – both before and after my changes. Both were filmed.

The results couldn’t have worked better. Alex shrieked with delight!

The first people in the pre-experiment shopper group drifted without purpose and didn’t buy. The second group who shopped my new, experimental layout followed the precise route that I had created. Not only that, but 50 per cent of them bought something! As an example, a collection of candle holders, which had not been previously well displayed, sold out during the experiment, having sold none in the whole of the previous year in their former position. By improving the visibility and appearance of these items, they became an attractive ‘must have’ gift item, with one customer buying six pieces at once.

My experiment showed the family that effective signage and a better layout could get customers to follow a planned journey instore, to maximise sales from all parts of the shop space. The customer benefits were clear: less confusion and a more satisfying experience.

I then considered product presentation. The family were worried that they would have to spend money on new fixtures etc., and I set about dispelling that myth. I explained that some of the most profitable retailers are market traders – they have to be. Every day they set out their stalls with perishable products that, if they don’t sell, they send to waste and with it the money invested in stock. These people really understand product presentation, service and retail theatre. To demonstrate, I set up a market stall for the family and showed them how it is done. My example confirmed that storeowners don’t need costly fixtures to sell more – they just need better retail practices, executed with great expertise.

In this show, there was no big budget to create a fancy makeover, but I had to pull one off as Oak had so much potential. This started with new branding and signage. Two days before Christmas I got the call to help. I briefed this into my team at 4pm on Thursday and by 2am, we had created three new branding and signage options, which were shown to the family at 8am Friday. They liked these so much, they asked me to pick the final design on their behalf!

With new branding and signage completed, I thought about how to transform the shop on only a shoestring budget. My intention was to create a store that would inspire shoppers to get outside, celebrate the joy of gardening and to maximise enjoyment of outdoor life.

I decided on a ‘shabby chic’ theme and planned a total store makeover. In three days, with my Visual Thinking team, I implemented innovative ideas and retail best practices to improve store design, space management, product presentation and to improve customer services.

We created an updated and unified ‘look and feel’ using visual merchandising to present products more effectively. We created new payment and information desks for better service. Blackboards were introduced to promote a gardener’s calendar, gardening club workshops and local events. Overall, we dug the foundations to show the business as more professional, a real destination and relevant as trusted experts to satisfy all their customers’ gardening needs.

Brad White said of the experience:

“The work of Karl and Alex has given us a completely new outlook. We have worked hard to keep adhering to the good practices that Karl and his team have put into place. We have kept presentation front of mind and maintained the route around the store, whilst improving the coffee shop and thinking more about what our customers want from us.

“We never expect anything in terms of sales in January and February, but we have seen that sales are already up on last year, and more and more people are coming to look around, with few leaving the store with nothing. They are enjoying what they see and taking in the whole shop. We’re expecting a huge March, not mention summer, as even with the bad weather, things are looking much better.

“I would say to anyone that’s struggling, look for a total change to get out of the rut. Stop being a conservationist, come out of your comfort zone and try to be creative. By learning from some of the mistakes we made, and following the advice on the show, a business can go a long way without spending a fortune. Just come up with ideas and act!”

Click here to see more images of the Oak Garden Centre before and after Karl’s work.