Confessions of a UK Hydro Store: Progrow Exeter

Brand new to the pages of Garden Culture Magazine, Confessions of a Hydro Store strives to connect you with the grow shops selling your favourite products (and offering your favourite magazine!). In today’s world, the sense of community amongst growers is more important than ever. In our second edition of this segment, we’d like you to get to know Progrow. With two locations in Exeter and Plymouth, Progrow has been serving customers for over 20 years and has witnessed the many changes that have affected the industry.   

The team at Progrow Exeter pose in a hydro store, in front of shelves housing grow products.

With over 20 years of serving the public, what has changed and what hasn’t?

When we started, we had the luxury of being the go-to place for information and equipment. The continued dominance of the internet in our lives has naturally affected how we get information and buy products. For example, if you wanted a grow light 20-30 years ago, you went to a grow shop. Now, you can buy them from anywhere in the world, and the same goes for hydroponic equipment. There are about 500 grow shops today; there were about 150 when we started.

The amount of equipment available has grown exponentially in our time, and the technology has gone through the roof, mainly due to the legitimacy of the U.S. scene, shall we say. Unfortunately, there also doesn’t seem to be a younger generation of growers coming through, which is a bit worrying, but maybe it’s because they are buying online!

What is your take on Nutriculture going out of business? 

Everybody in this industry knows that these are challenging times. We have the utmost respect for Nutriculture. They were more than innovators; they forged a path and created a business way ahead of the curve in the U.K. They were an essential supplier for anyone considering hydroponic retail. We have sold thousands of their systems, and that’s just us in our little corner of the world. 

When a company becomes bigger with more staff, maybe things get harder to manage, or it’s not quite as ahead of the curve as it was. You have to evolve in an evolving market, and maybe Nutriculture didn’t react fast enough. Grow tents became popular, and the older systems tended to fit awkwardly.

How has Brexit impacted your business?

I don’t see how anyone in business could think that restricting trading with our 28 closest neighbouring countries is positive. We’ve found stock orders from Europe take two weeks now when it was two days. The same goes for despatching orders to Europe; it takes longer, is more expensive, and there are more forms and declarations to fill in. So we are indirectly paying the extra costs in shipping through price rises of stock from abroad.

An employee at Progrow Exeter waters plants growing in a hydroponic tent.

What music plays in the store?

We have impeccable music taste and try our best to educate the staff with Radio 6 on the BBC. Aran, in our dispatch department, listens (unfortunately for my ears!) to Kerrang Radio, which plays music that resembles someone drunkenly falling over bins in an alley whilst trying to summon the devil. Yet, somehow, he plays this music to people at gigs; he’s available for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, birthday parties, and other events. 

How do you try to make your shop stand out?

When we started, I remember wondering if we had enough knowledge to advise people properly. So we made sure we did; it pays dividends again and again if you can inform customers correctly. If someone’s new to hydroponics, it’s pretty bewildering, similar to learning a new language. So we’ve taken many customers step-by-step through growing successfully over the years—knowledge backed by good stock, in stock. We get online orders to customers quickly and efficiently, again, something you can only do if you have the inventory. Beyond being knowledgeable, we are professional and friendly and don’t sell ‘gimmick’ products. 

What is the most common question asked by customers?

Currently, they want us to price match x-y-z or want to know if we have various products in stock. It’s impossible to keep all lines in stock, and of course, we’ll do our best to get things specifically for customers if we can. And we were one of the first in our industry to offer a price match.

How do you create customer loyalty?

Good service and fairness, coupled with knowledge and stock are the only options. Over the years, we’ve had loyalty schemes and tried to encourage online accounts, with no significant uptake. Lockdowns got customers more accustomed to ordering online, so customer loyalty is down. 

What has been the biggest challenge of running the shop?

Managing staff without a doubt, paying taxes and feeling like you’re getting nowhere, and adapting to the changing world and market. The business has been fortunate to have some outstanding employees over the years and probably has its best staff right now. There’s a lot of investment that goes into training staff. You also need to trust the person you employ to handle customers you’ve worked hard to gain. Also, when you work so hard and have such a huge chunk taken in tax, it does make it very difficult to keep going. The changing market mainly revolves around customers shopping from their phones and the rising costs of running a retail establishment. 

Two employees at the hydro store assemble a hydroponic tent.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

I don’t think I would have done anything differently. We started our business at a good time as the only outlet in the area. We worked hard and put everything into it. We established a good online business and we’ve been successful for over 20 years, so I try to be grateful for what it’s given me and want for nothing. 

Want to be the next Hydro Store to ‘confess’?

  • Take a picture of this edition of Garden Culture Magazine in your shop, post to Instagram and tag @gardenculturemagazine.


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