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Can't see the wood for the jam

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I'VE watched our local garden centre develop over the last decade or so with interest. When I first moved to the area it was a small, family-run nursery that was pretty basic and haphazard. The car park was a grassy field, the opening hours varied depending on what time the family got up in the mornings and the place sold nothing but plants, each of which came with a name tag, in Latin, and a long chat from the proprietor about what soil it liked, how much fertiliser it needed and how it should be pruned.

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However, little by little things changed. For instance, the variety and number of plants increased; each one had a plastic label that showed what the mature plant would look like and little diagrams to indicate how big it would grow and whether it preferred sun or shade. Then the owners added a new greenhouse to produce exotic plants that customers wanted for their conservatories at home. The car park was extended and tarmac was put down. An old barn was converted into a tearoom, and, a year later, another building was added to stock aquatic plants and pond accessories. Then they extended out the back to allow them to have garden sheds and greenhouses on display, and the car park had to be enlarged yet again.

Despite the fact that it's a bit disjointed, there's no doubt that the public likes it. It's still owned by the family and the car park is full by mid-morning every weekend. And it's not just a seasonal business either; it really is a year-round venture, with Santa's gift shop and grotto – complete with some real reindeer – drawing literally thousands of people in the annual run up to Christmas.

I dropped in last week to get a few bits and pieces, and I found that the gift store section had been extended once more. I worked my way past piles of biscuits and shelves full of kitchenware, skirted around a display of china figurines and tripped over a pile of scatter cushions before finding the herbaceous plants I was after – they were tucked behind the home-made jams and preserves section, and were quite easy to overlook. I also noted a new addition, a ‘family pet area’, offering animal foods, cat and dog toys and over-the-counter pet medicines.

Alan, the grandfather of the family, was at the till and he greeted me warmly as I fumbled in my pockets for some money. I forbore to mention their new pet accessories section but commented that their large range of garden furniture was impressive. Alan nodded contentedly, and seemed unperturbed by my comment that I had found it difficult to find the plants I had wanted in his vast emporium. ‘Between you and me,’ he confided, ‘we would be better off not selling plants. The profit margins on them is too low. I reckon we should clear them out and just sell everything else instead. We could use the space to extend the tearoom and maybe have a bigger play area for children.’

I pondered on the way home how a business can develop and diversify like this. Garden centres all over the country have become minor tourist attractions nowadays, selling a huge variety of things that are not always – and, indeed, sometimes not at all – to do with gardening. Given that the management gurus tell vets that it's all about making the most of our facilities and that we should encourage clients to spend more time and money with us, I've decided that we should review matters, and it's on the agenda for our next staff meeting. I reckon that we could convert the practice lab to display indoor plants, the consult rooms can stock greetings cards and an assortment of tableware, and the waiting room will be ideal as a coffee lounge and cake shop. Just one thing, though – if we're serving food, we won't be able to allow animals onto the premises.

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