Sitting in the coffee shop of a small independent garden centre in the midlands, I found myself counting tables and chairs. Sad, I know, but bear with me – there’s a point to be made here.
As a generalisation, garden centre coffee shop customers are most likely to be couples, rather than single individuals or family groups. Second generalisation: we British are not a naturally gregarious people – we don’t like sharing tables with strangers. We definitely don’t like it when strangers assume they can share ‘our’ table. So when we go into a coffee shop, we look for a vacant table, rather than for vacant seats at a table already occupied.
Obviously the sensible way to furnish a garden centre coffee shop, therefore, is with two-seater tables. And they should be square two-seater tables because they can easily be pushed together to accommodate larger groups – which round tables can’t.
But in the coffee shop where I was counting tables, there was one rectangular six-seater, two rectangular four-seaters, and eight round tables of varying sizes and with a total of 25 seats. Total: 11 tables and 39 seats. Nearly every table was occupied – by a couple, naturally – but only one table was set up as a two-seater, therefore only one table was actually full. In theory, the coffee shop could seat 39 people, but with a couple at each table it would be perceived as full, because there wouldn’t be a vacant table. 22 seats occupied, 17 seats vacant, and running at only 56% of capacity.
And that was pretty much the situation while I was there. At lunchtime on a Wednesday in August, the garden centre itself and the plant area were pretty much deserted. The only part of the business where business was being done was the coffee shop; nearly every customer in the place was heading there, only to find it ‘full’, although some 40% of the seats were unoccupied. What would it cost to replace the current collection of 11 unsuitable tables with around 20 smaller ones? And how long would a take to recoup that modest investment in the centre’s most popular department? A few weeks, maybe?