If the mainstream media is to be believed, then the non-digital retail industry is doomed. We constantly hear of well-known high street brands going into administration and we regularly see for ourselves the effect of this on our local high streets. There’s no denying the internet has had a huge effect on how consumers shop, but when it comes to ‘real life’ shopping experiences, is it that these failed retailers are purely missing something?
These days, if we are going to go out to shop we want something the internet can’t give us. We aren’t always just looking for the cheapest price or the product with the best reviews. When we visit a store in person, we want more – we want a warm welcome and great customer service, we want all of our senses indulged, and we want to come away feeling inspired. Retailers need to make their stores a place where people want to be. A space that offers more than just ‘goods’. It may be that it is merchandised in a unique and inspirational way, or it may offer additional services like personal shopping. Or, it might be the addition of a small café area, or a program of events and workshops that makes your space one of community rather than ‘just another shop’.
A prime example of a thriving retail establishment that has built their brand around customer experience is Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, Surrey. Those struggling high street brands can learn so much from this family-run business, who prove that quality over quantity, attention to detail and an almost theatrical approach to merchandising is what is required to thrive in today’s crowded retail market. 91 contributor Karen Barlow pays a visit to the renowned store, to discover how Petersham Nurseries have pitched it ‘just right’…
A PLACE WORTH A PILGRIMAGE
If you are involved in the interiors or food industries in any way, or even if you’re not, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Petersham Nurseries. For me, as a stylist based in the north of England, I’d often heard whispers of the Surrey-based stylist’s dream from friends in the same line of work as me, as well as antique dealers and florists, who clearly draw inspiration from this store. Despite knowing Richmond well (one of my best friends had lived there), I had never actually visited Petersham. So, when planning a recent trip to London, I decided it was time to make my pilgrimage to this place of legendary style and culinary delight.
Looking into the history, I discovered the original site of the nursery was developed by the Boglioni family when they bought the adjoining house in 1997. After much hard work renovating the buildings, they flung open the doors to the public in 2004. The fact that their business has weathered many an economic storm over the past 16 years is in itself testament to a robust business model that is rooted in passion and creativity.
Their business has flourished over the years, not only attracting loyal, local customers, but those like myself who travel from far and wide to experience what they have created. In 2018, they expanded their brand into the heart of central London, opening a second store in Covent Garden which includes two restaurants and a bar. However, the Nurseries in Richmond, remain their flagship store and the one that customers will go out of their way to visit.
For a London tourist, it certainly will feel like a step off the beaten track. The London borough of Richmond offers a village feel just a short journey from the hustle and bustle of the city, and has a lot to offer visitors in itself with its riverside walks and mix of independent and high street shops. But Petersham’s location goes one step further with its bucolic setting. Surrounded by National Trust owned meadow land, complete with grazing herds of cows, the surrounding countryside has been captured on many an artist canvas since the 17th Century. Original Victorian brick garden walls skirt the footpath which leads to the Nurseries, birdsong is the only sound interrupting the peace as you amble along. As the path ends, plants and architectural salvage come into view, surrounded by Victorian glasshouses and out-buildings; the setting for the shops, restaurant and tea house that make up Petersham Nurseries. Of course, not every retail outlet can offer such an enchanting approach to their doors, but ideas and theories can be gleaned here in terms of how to create intrigue and anticipation around your space.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The first thing you may notice as you enter the main glasshouse, aside from the most exquisite antique furniture, lighting and object d’art, is the sand floor. The proprietors have made no attempt to disguise the history of the glasshouse structure – originally constructed for growing plants and flowers – and instead use it to their advantage: a point of difference. It is in fact the raw nature of the earth floor and the history of the glass structure, that creates the most spectacular backdrop for the visual displays of beautiful objects that are on sale. It’s clear much time has been taken on the merchandising and styling of the wares which are sourced from far and wide to ensure their range is a little bit out of the ordinary. Instagram-loving visitors find it hard to keep their phone cameras in their pockets as they discover Insta-worthy scenes around every corner. Creating photo opportunities may not have been on the Boglioni family’s radar back in 2004, but in today’s world, having customers inadvertently promote your business through their social media posts during a visit is a great marketing tool.
SPACES TO REST AND REFUEL
As you walk through the galley of expertly-styled tables, collections of magnificent mirrors and antique artworks, the restaurant comes into view; decorated with mismatched tables and chairs, twinkling fairy lights draped across glass ceiling panels and grand urns of majestic floral displays. It’s no surprise that this magical and romantic setting has become a popular venue for weddings and private events. A sense of openness and sincerity is felt as we see the many chefs, waiters and kitchen staff, eating and chatting together around a large table, like a family. Gathering and discussing the day ahead amongst early shoppers may seem inconsequential, but it all adds to this sense of a space that is welcoming and hospitable.
Meandering through the restaurant to the side exit, an intriguing wooden cabin structure can be found. Made from recycled planks of blackened wood like some hidden log cabin in a Grimm’s fairy tale, this is the teahouse where homemade bakes, tea infusions and good coffee can be enjoyed. On a balmy spring or summer day, an eclectic collection of seating is scattered around outside amongst the various buildings, perfect for al fresco dining and allowing visitors time to enjoy the grounds and consider those potential purchases.
A PHILOSOPHY FOR SUCCESS
The ethos of The Boglioni family is impressive. They began their business journey as pioneers of the good life; living off the land as seasonally as possible, having great respect for the planet. These attributes and values have carried them through to what is very much at the heart of what consumers want from retail today. They are constantly looking for ways to reduce their footprint, protect the environment, be more sustainable and accountable and engage with the surrounding community. As well as approximately 75% of their staff living in the area, they also work with many local charities, creating fundraising events at Petersham and have donated tens of thousands of pounds to various causes.
Keeping your ethos grounded in doing good rather than purely making money will ensure that your business becomes something that people want to be part of. Not just customers, but the staff that work for you, your suppliers, and those you may collaborate with. Building a business with heart is what will bring success.
In today’s unstable world, what is needed, not only in retail but business in general, is kindness and consideration, not greed and selfishness. Of course, balancing the books within any business is essential, but what will bring that financial security is creating something that offers your customers an experience they will never forget; one they will return for again and again for years to come.
Photography: Karen Barlow