A prominent figure on the UK natural and organic scene many years, Al Overton started out as medical herbalist before beginning a 20 year retail career. After a spell at Neal’s Yard Remedies he joined Planet Organic in 2003. Over the next 19 years – progressing from category manager to buying director – he played a pivotal role in the transformation and scaling of the business which set the template for modern health food retailing.
This summer Overton announced it was “time for a change” and that he was taking up a new role as a partner in Wonderland Ventures (alongside former Planet CEO Peter Marsh and branding specialist Lawrence Barnett).
In this wide-ranging conversation with Natural Newsdesk’s Jim Manson, Al Overton talks about what he has learnt and achieved in two decades in retail, but also about the challenges confronting the natural and organic sector – and the opportunities for agile businesses that learn to thrive in a fast-changing market.
Natural Newsdesk: You started out as a medical herbalist. Where did the interest in herbs and botanicals come from?
Al Overton: I qualified in herbalism in 1999. Predating that, in fact going right back to school, I knew I had an interest in health but that I was probably too squeamish to be a doctor. I was very interested in ecology and I thought another route would be to train as a research biologist in the ecology field. So there was interest in health and sustainability at quite an early age. And then I went to a careers fair and there was a guy there who said he was a medial herbalist – and I thought, well, that sounds like a great job! So I looked into it, found a degree course and studied it. I discovered that I enjoyed the studying but when I set myself up as a self-employed practitioner I quickly realised I didn’t particularly enjoy seeing patients. Slight issue!
NN: You made an early move into retail, joining Neal’s Yard Remedies. Tell me about that experience?
AO: I’d started working at Neal’s Yard Remedies part-time when I was still studying. And frankly I learnt more working at the Neal’s Yard shop selling herbs than I did at the University studying herbs. Because at the time Neal’s Yard was essentially a walk in alternative therapy clinic. Most of staff were like me, wannabe therapists. So I took a full time job at Neal’s Yard and that then progressed into store management.
Neal’s Yard was then a classic early days founder-driven business, with Romy Fraser still at the helm. Every other person there seemed to be a druid. And it was a really interesting place to be.
NN: You joined Planet Organic in 2003. Describe the businesses as it was then?
AO: An opportunity came up at Planet Organic in 2003 as health & body care manager at the Torrington Place store, and I went for it. It was still a two store business at that time. The original store at Westbourne Grove opened in 1995. Torrington Place opened in 2000. The business was still very much being run by Reneé Elliott and her husband Brian with a single-minded mission to be an organic store. The plan was to be even more organic as new opportunities cropped up.
It was great place to work. You know, there was always somebody playing the guitar in the staff room lunchtime. And it also felt a much bigger business, coming from Neal’s Yard. It felt like a really big store. The basic idea was to be somewhere that would offer an organic alternative to everything you would finda regular food shop. And I think a lot of the success from the early days, that continues to this day, is down to the service and experience you got as a Planet customer. Basically, it was about making shopping for health foods a bit more fun, a bit more sexy.
NN: A sort of reimagining of UK health food retail?
AO: Yes, in way. Reneé was from the US and she took some of her inspiration from the stores that she had been familiar with there. So I don’t think her vision was to open a health food shop, as a health food shop would have been understood in the UK at the time. It was to open that kind of store I’ve seen over there, that doesn’t exist here. It was a very different and I’d say a much more vibrant retail environment that she had created. And to be honest when I was working on the shop floor then as a buyer I didn’t really feel part of the health food store world or industry. Which can be very traditional at times.
There really was a big focus on organic and Planet was also pioneering product standards that were embedded right into the business. A lot of what set us apart was the customer experience, and the effort to make organic food something that was desirable.
“A typical Planet Organic customer, and actually a typical customer of any specialist natural and organic retailer, is likely to be mission and values based in their purchasing motivation. And if you’re not giving them that then fundamentally you’re not giving them what they need”
We also appealed strongly to people who were seeking change. A typical Planet Organic customer, and actually a typical customer of any specialist natural and organic retailer, is likely to be mission and values based in their purchasing motivation. And if you’re not giving them that then fundamentally you’re not giving them what they need. That applies to brands just as much. And I’d say that if you are starting out as a food brand you should be asking yourself two fundamental questions: What is the need state that you are satisfying, and whose customers are you going to take?
NN: What were the big milestone changes at Planet Organic during the time you were there, and what personal achievements are you most proud of?
AO: There were a lot of milestones. For one, the main focus of the business changed. It went from being very focused on being that organic supermarket offering an organic alternative to mainstream shopping to something much broader. And that really accelerated when Peter Marsh came in as CEO and I started working with him in a primarily buying role.
The introduction of on-shelf dietary labelling across the store would be another one. Planet Organic was the first to have that and it was revolutionary in free-from. So instead of having to have our rapidly growing free-from offer in dedicated bays, as all the bigger retailers did, we spread the range right across the store. But at the point of purchase the customer would get all the cues that the product was, say, gluten-free or dairy-free, or vegan. That really kickstarted Planet’s ambitions in the free-from market. In terms of product and category innovation, raw foods was also something we went in with all guns blazing – and changed the market. We were right at the front of the curve with raw and that set the scene for the constant, constant innovation which is now such an embedded philosophy at Planet Organic.
There were also some big sustainability milestones along the way. I got rid of plastic bags in around 2010 I think, we put Unpackaged into stores around 2014-15 and became zero edible food waste in 2018. These were were genuine milestones for the business, but I would say the industry too.
But the thing I am personally most proud of, apart from an absolutely amazing and first-in-class team, is maintaining Planet Organic’s reputation and product standard. In the end, that’s absolutely fundamental. So much of Planet’s success comes down to the questions ‘what are we doing, what are we selling, what are we not selling, where do we stand?’.
NN: Tell us about Wonderland Ventures. What is it?
AO: We founded Wonderland ventures as a strategy and growth consultancy for brands in the health and wellbeing space. It’s a partnership between myself, Peter Marsh, who I worked with at Planet Organic, and Lawrence Barnett, who runs a brand design agency, who we both knew and worked with at planet. So, collectively, a very broad skill set and a lot of industry experience.
I’m basically here to help brands grow and develop and increase their sales. One of the things I really enjoyed at Planet was supporting and launching new brands, at times mentoring them from concept to shelf. Hopefully we can draw on all the experience we’ve built up and help brands navigate this really complicated but endlessly fascinating market.
NN: How do you work with brands and how different is it today for start-ups compared to 20 years ago?
AO: Well, one thing that is different is that there is a much better network that exists today. In the past start ups tended to exist in isolation and not be aware of each other. Having said that, it is still quite quite easy to end up in decision paralysis. Sometimes brands just need a sounding board. Part of the Wonderland Ventures offers is to be a consultant therapist and mentor for new brands. Others need help navigating the different retail channels that are now available. I seem to spend quite a lot of my time telling brands how to speak to buyers and how to pitch to buyers. They’ll say ‘buyers never answer my emails or phone calls’, to which the obvious reply is buyers never answer anyone’s emails or phone calls!
NN: Do you sometimes need to give clients a bit of reality check?
AO: I do think sometimes there is a need for a reality check. I don’t think I’d be doing my job properly if I wasn’t at the very least showing people how to get the most out of their time, effort and money.
NN: What have you seen recently that excites you personally, as a retail or brand proposition?
AO: Times are tough, let’s face it. And they are unpredictable times too. That said, there are always lots of exciting new brands on the market and there are lots of new spaces for those new brands to play in. For example, I was at the Lunch! show recently and it was very obvious that there’s still lots of innovation happening in the food to go space. I’m expecting the same at the Low2NoBev show this month. The lo-no drinks category is also at an exciting stage of its development. And there are still interesting things going on in guilt-free snacking, and – slightly unbelievably – another revival happening in breakfast cereals.
When it comes to retail what excites me is when you walk into a store and immediately feel the passion and inspiration of the store owner. The fact is, I can buy virtually anything I want from my desk and get it delivered to my home. I don’t actually need to go to a shop. But I might want to. And that’s the challenge that retailers are having to cope with – and learn how to maximise the opportunities of. Increasingly, what you want as a retailer most of all is your customers’ time, rather than focusing on getting hold of their money. Money is the side-effect of getting them to visit your store.
“The fact is, I can buy virtually anything I want from my desk and get it delivered to my home. I don’t actually need to go to a shop. But I might want to. And that’s the challenge that retailers are having to cope with – and learn how to maximise the opportunities of”
The other thing I really like about independent retail, when it’s done well, is going into a store and seeing range curation that is very personal to the store, and probably the owner of the store. The whole store edit is guided by things that the owner loves.
NN: You mentioned that you brought Unpackaged into Planet Organic. Do you think dedicated zero waste stores have a viable future?
Zero waste on its own is a challenge. I think where it is succeeding now – and there are some successful examples – is where zero waste or packaging-free sits within a broader offer.
NN: You’ve spoken at lots of events here and internationally on a whole range of issues. So I’d like to widen our discussion out to hear your thoughts on some of the issues that will shape the future of our industry. First, what are your thoughts about prospects for organic in the UK where there still seem to be substantial obstacles standing in the way of organic breaking thorough decisively, and where market share is still under 2%?
AO: Well, for a start, the UK has a very unusual food industry. And we also have an unusual relationship with food, particularly if you compare it to many parts of Continental Europe. I think in Britain we’ve lost the knowledge of our food culture and food traditions. We’re no longer sure what we should be eating. I don’t think the French sit around and think, well, what on earth are we supposed to be eating – it’s still something that’s bound up with their national identity. While on one hand that creates a big opportunity, it also makes it difficult for markets to shift the key commodity areas.
Organic has always had a challenge in having too much to say. It’s had a lot to talk about in terms of health, a lot to talk about in terms of sustainability and on the broader environment and welfare issues. As a meta brand, if you like, it also has had to deal with increasing competition from other ethical labels – regenerative, vegan, plastic-free, free-from. There are now a whole bunch of things a food producer might decide to put on the label because it might appeal to the customer. That makes it harder for organic to cut through.
There is also a sort of organic product hierarchy in many people’s minds. Basically, the more processed an organic food product is the harder it becomes to sell its ‘organicness’. So if you talk to an average punter about an organic carrot I think they will have some idea of what that means. If you ask them about an organic frozen pizza you start to get some more doubtful looks and I think that’s because the link between the product and the land has become much more remote in their minds. There are similar challenges in a category like organic cosmetics. How well understood is organic skincare as a value proposition? I’d say not very in many cases.
NN: What do you see as the future drivers of the natural and organic food sector as we navigate these complex health and sustainability equations?
AO: Well, I think there is a unifying theme here. Whether we’re talking about natural health, plant-based or organic we’re actually talking about industries that are trying to make a difference. We don’t need to agonise over whether it’s a health benefit or a sustainability benefit that a brand or business is offering. Because the two things are often one and the same. In the past we’ve got a bit hung up about the whole health versus sustainability debate around organic. For a long time there was this idea that organic consumers in the UK were much more focused on health, so it’s seen as a better-for-me thing, while in Denmark, they’re all altruistic and buying organic because it’s better for the planet. Even if it’s true it doesn’t really matter what the purchasing motivation is, it’s the fact that people are able to make a difference that counts in the end.
NN: As well as activist groups, we’ve seen the emergence of activist brands. How much messaging on these issues should brands be doing?
Look, I think we need as many disruptors as possible. Because the food industry in Britain is broken. Probably globally. And there are millions of people looking aspirationally to the brands and movements who want to fix it. I’m broadly optimistic that we can fix it. But like a lot of people I am probably concerned about the speed and scale of change. Because it turns out, who knew, that the human race are procrastinators. Our rational selves know this is incredibly important stuff and the clock is running down – but mañana, mañana. But we do need to avoid becoming pessimistic and recognise that by pretty much every significant metric, life is better than it used to be.
“Look, I think we need as many disruptors as possible. Because the food industry in Britain is broken. Probably globally. And there are millions of people looking aspirationally to the brands and movements who want to fix it”
I think it’s useful to look at the many things that have changed in a very short space of time and the messaging that is finally happening around health. I’ve been in the health sector for quite a long time now and I’ve seen a lot of wrong reportage. But a lot of the thinking about health and nutrition that began life in our sector, and which was mocked or attacked at the time, is now being recognised and making its way into policy.
A good starting point for effecting real change would be rebranding each of ourselves as citizens rather than consumers. And acknowledging that there are citizens who want to buy change and spend their money on eating well and living better.
Of course there is a lot of work to do because most people still do their supermarket shopping on autopilot, whatever their honest intentions are about eating more healthily and sustainably. We have to jolt them out of that. That’s where we really need the disruptors – to change and to disrupt that auto pilot behaviour.