Dobbies looks to put down Irish roots with new garden centres

DOBBIES, the Scottish garden centre chain, is casting an eye across the Irish Sea at it embarks on the next phase of its expansion drive.

The group, which this summer will reveal record annual sales of around 112 million, up from the previous year's haul of 104m, has already laid out ambitious growth plans to be a 1 billion business with 100 sites in the next ten years.

Founded by James Dobbie in Renfrew in 1865, the company was acquired three years ago by Tesco following a takeover tussle with retail entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter, but remains independently run. Its head office has been located on the outskirts of Edinburgh for the past 77 years.

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A 50m growth burst has resulted in the opening of five centres in the past year, taking the store count to 29 and creating 600 jobs, including around 400 in Scotland.

The firm made its first foray into Northern Ireland, opening a site in Lisburn near Belfast, and is now looking to dig further into the Irish market.

Updating on progress almost three years since the group's shares were delisted following the Tesco takeover, chief executive James Barnes said: "We are looking for more opportunities in Northern Ireland and possibly in the south (of Ireland].

"There are three stores under construction in England so the south will overtake Scotland in September, at least temporarily. There are still one or two pockets in Scotland we would like to have a presence in."

He described the long-term goal for 100 branches as "realistic". Dobbies' biggest competitor - The Garden Centre Group, formerly Wyevale - currently runs 119 centres.

The opening of sites in Carlisle, Peterborough and Liverpool this year along with solid organic growth will take sales to a projected 150m in the current financial year to February 2012. It comes in spite of what Dobbies admits is a "challenging" retail backdrop.

"The consumer economy is the biggest challenge," said Barnes. "I don't see any rapid turnaround but garden centres can be a refuge in tougher times. We are a bite-size indulgence, a little treat or leisure destination day out. We also tend to have a more stable customer base."

The group has expanded its core horticultural offering to encompass home and garden departments including gifts and furniture. Its latest accounts will show the core gardening and plant business enjoyed a rise of 3.3 per cent over the year, driven by a 9.5 per cent rise in "grow-your-own" sales. Membership of the Dobbies Gardening Club rose 29 per cent.Following a successful trial the previous year, the group has rolled out the sales of chickens from four centres to 16 - resulting in almost 1,000 egg-laying hens being sold.Barnes said a rising number of the group's 13 million-strong customer base were becoming self-sufficient as the grow-your-own trend continues.

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Top-selling lines included strawberry plants, with sales up 32 per cent, and rosemary, up 50 per cent.