Dobbies cultivates record sales with plans for growth

TESCO-OWNED garden centre chain Dobbies booked record sales of £104 million last year as it also divulged ambitions yesterday to increase that figure tenfold within a decade with the backing of its parent group.

James Barnes, chief executive of Midlothian-based Dobbies, said his company's formidable "strength as a horticulturalist" was the cornerstone of its major growth plans.

Currently the Tesco subsidiary serves nearly 12 million customers from 25 UK centres.

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But Barnes said Dobbies had "ambitious growth plans to be a 1 billion business with 100 stores in ten years". Analysts said this signalled a "step change" in the group's ambitions.

Barnes said: "Our key competitive advantage is being able to place core gardening and quality horticulture at the very heart of our brand, whilst being able to offer our customers a wide and attractive choice of products and services across our other business areas, including garden and conservatory furniture, giftware, homeware and aquatics."

The firm's core garden centre business saw sales rise just under 7 per cent as plant sales increased 10.5 per cent. Restaurant revenues – about a fifth of the business – rose 3.9 per cent, while online sales jumped 37 per cent.

The group said sales of grow-your-own fruit and vegetables lifted 33 per cent in the economic downturn, while overall like-for-like sales rose 6.2 per cent in the year to February.

Recession-hit customers had been particularly keen on planting their own tomatoes and strawberries.

Dobbies said it would sell hens in more of its stores as customers yearning for the "good life" make poultry popular. It said egg-laying hens will be sold in more of its larger stores this year after 1,000 chickens were snapped up in a trial at four outlets.

The firm said customers were attracted to a "greener" way of life, with chicken coops now among the top 20 best-selling lines.

Tesco has had a controversial relationship with poultry in the past, attracting the ire of television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in 2008 over welfare concerns about the chickens it sold in its supermarkets.

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Dobbies also operates Farm Foodhalls departments, specialising in local produce, where there was a 4.1 per cent rise in sales.

The firm was founded in 1865 by James Dobbie and its horticultural offering has been expanded over the years to add home and garden departments including furniture, pets, toys and gifts.