Customer service aids Sidmouth garden centre success

Staff teamwork and customer service key to Sidmouth Garden Centre success

WHAT makes Sidmouth Garden Centre so special?

Entrepreneur Ian Barlow, who took over the run-down centre nearly 10 years ago, puts it down to good staff, teamwork, and above all, customer service.

Last week the garden centre beat centres from across the country for the second time in three years to win the prestigious National Garden Centre Retailer of the Year award, both for best centre and customer service.

“We are quite a competitive bunch up here,” said manager James Trevitt, who has worked with Ian since he was 18.

Staff tend to stay for years when they land a job at the centre, situated on the main A3052 nearly opposite Waitrose.

Speaking of its early beginnings, Ian, a keen fruit and veg gardener, had been in the decking business after working in catering at Sue’s Pantry and The Marlborough Hotel (now Dukes).

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“I was taking life easier and my wife Nikki told me to stop telling her how to run the house and get out and get a hobby.

“This came on the market and although I didn’t know a lot about gardening I thought I couldn’t do worse. It started as something I enjoyed and believed could be better. I never imagined we would be where we are so quickly.”

It was December 1. The previous owner told Ian he would be lucky to sell 150 Christmas trees that year. In fact he sold 600 and last year it was 1,300, giving �1,300 to charity.

“We had icicles in the mornings hanging off the inside of the old greenhouse,” said Ian.

James helped demolish this and erect the new centre, recycled from the former Normans greenhouse near Colaton Raleigh, brought over girder by girder and reassembled.

James said: “The first time it felt like a garden centre was when we moved the car park to the back and got five couples in the store. We had just started to get an interest in the place.”

Ian said: “If you look after customers they talk to each other and very soon we were having quite a few customers within the area.”

Word of mouth soon spread and now customers come from as far away as Chardstock, Bridport and Torquay to shop there.

Kieron Bewes was their plantsman for some years and, after he left to start his own business three years ago, Darren Knapman was made plant manager.

Joe Cousins (sundries, dried goods) joined a year after the new store was built and in all, some 52 part-time and full-time staff work at the garden centre.

It doesn’t just sell plants and shrubs. Inside the now extended centre customers can find a restaurant, built eight years ago, run by manager Carolyn Blackmore and her team, and more recently a lifestyle gift shop, Temptation, opened.

Ian’s philosophy of his success: “Everyone calls me an entrepreneur, I enjoy challenges and gamble on building something, believing if it is right people will use it and if you look after people they will come back.”