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Agile retailers: How health stores reinvented themselves during the pandemic  

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Three well known UK health food retailers have been explaining how the pandemic forced them to question traditional business thinking to get the through the most challenging trading times in living memory.

The retailers (all member of the NAHS) were in conversation with Natural & Organic Products Europe event director, Carole Dunning, as part of the event’s ‘NP Meets’ Zoom discussions. 

More complex health needs, younger customers 
The retailers say that while customers are gradually coming back, city centre locations are still a challenge for stores. Overall, they say, footfall has been down by around 35% during the pandemic. Customers are also coming into store with more complex health queries, which means stores need to draw heavily on their advice and expertise, sometimes needing to recruit additional advisers and therapists. The stores also report lower numbers of older customers (some of whom switched to home delivery, or have moved online), resulting in a younger customer demographic “who want totally different things”. 

As well as highlighting common challenges encountered during the pandemic, each of the retailers shared their learnings from the last two years and gave examples of changes they’d made to their businesses that had been prompted by the exceptional circumstances. 

City centre store review 
Vicky Perks, director and holistic nutritionist at Beanfreaks (with three stores in Cardiff) said that while its two Cardiff suburbs stores had performed well in the pandemic, the retailer’s flagship city centre site struggled with low footfall. Coincidentally, that store’s lease was coming to an end, providing an opportunity for a strategic rethink. The decision was taken to close the store, which Perks described as a “a small supermarket sized shop, and a bit of a leviathan”. She found a “smaller, much more manageable store”, which opened as Wellness@Beanfreaks in the city’s Royal Arcade in May 2021. Perks says that while she is pleased with the look and direction of the more specialist, smaller store, “we honestly don’t know what the city centre is going to do”. That’s why she insisted on break clauses (at two and five years) with the new lease. “We negotiated quite hard and said, look, we’re a good company, if you want us in your arcade this is what we want to do”. 

“We negotiated quite hard and said, look, we’re a good company, if you want us in your arcade this is what we want to do”

Joanne Hill, owner of Amaranth Natural Health, Beauty & Wellbeing (with two stores in Manchester and Bramhall), said that the pandemic began just months after the opening of the Manchester store. When the country went into lockdown, Hill had to take make some quick decisions. She decided to close the Manchester shop (“Manchester was hit massively during every tier”), which has more of a supplement and beauty focus, placing the store team on furlough. With one store temporarily closed, and Bramhall operating on slightly shorter hours, Hill found herself with some time on her hands. So she signed up for a series of online marketing webinars and training courses, “the sort of thing I was always telling myself to do, but couldn’t find the time for”. She also set about working on a major overhaul of Amaranth’s website. She explained: “The old site was on a bespoke platform. We were constantly trying to change things, but it was very difficult to manage and product information was constantly going out of date. By October we had completely re-launched the website, which now hosts around 2000 products. It’s much more SEO friendly, more manageable and efficient”. 

Staying connected 
Having the new site has helped the business in many different ways. “First of all it helped us stay connected with our existing customers, creating different ways for them to buy from us. But it’s also brought us some new customers. And that has really stemmed from our key USP which is our advice. We created a button on the website that allows you to book a health review with a registered nutritionist. It means that we are giving the same top quality advice we would give in the store, but we are doing it on zoom. Also, now it’s in place (both stores are fully open again) we’re no longer just waiting for people to come through the door”. 

Julie Goodwin, owner of Natural Health, with stores in Welwyn Garden City and Hertford, said that her business – which derives a considerable part of its income from the therapy rooms it lets out to practitioners – was hit badly during the first lockdown, and she closed her Hertford store for three weeks. Goodwin experimented by taking her store onto Amazon. “We were selling a lot of products, but gradually the benefits were outweighed by the negatives, particularly the discounting that goes on. We’re still selling online and we have been working on a new store website, which is likely to go live in the spring.” Goodwin says that the “therapists are coming back” and that, as they do, they help increase footfall in the store. 

Mind your own business
During the quieter times Goodwin taught herself bookkeeping. Admitting that “accounts and invoices weren’t really my thing”, she says she has found her new knowledge “incredibly liberating”. It’s also helped her manage business costs more effectively and saved a lot of money along the way – and resulted in a £10,000 VAT refund!  

“I think this experience has created the realisation that, fundamentally, we are all about health, wellness and advice – and we’re discovering there are so many ways that we can take that to people”

All three retailers acknowledge that there will be challenges ahead, but say they are more optimistic about the future now. Julie Goodwin said she feels that “we have turned a corner”. Joanne Hill added: “I think this experience has created the realisation that, fundamentally, we are all about health, wellness and advice – and we’re discovering there are so many ways that we can take that to people”. 

Natural & Organic Products Europe takes place on 3-4 April 2022 at ExCel, London

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