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Better Retailing Secret Shopper Awards 2014 – The runners-up

Second place: Nutrition Centre, Cirencester

The staff of Cirencester's Nutrition Centre

Nutrition Centre in Cirencester demonstrates a winning combination of great store presentation, product knowledge and customer service

Our Secret Shopper was very impressed with Nutrition Centre in Cirencester, commenting on the lovely feel of the store interior: “The store is bright with lots of natural light on an overcast day – clean, immaculately tidy and well-organised.”

Also striking was the great personal attention that she received from the staff. “I’m greeted with a big smile a second after I walk in, and asked if I need any help… she immediately knows what to say, what products to suggest, and her manner is very helpful.”

Lynda Ulloa-Thompson, the manager of the store, firmly believes that one of the secrets of their success is the genuine passion that all the staff members have for natural, healthy living. “We’re so lucky in that every single person who works here really loves their job, and actually looks forward to coming to work. We all support each other, and there’s a real sense of teamwork. Most importantly we are all very enthusiastic about the products that we sell, and about healthy living in general. I think that comes across when we talk to our customers, and we pass that enthusiasm on to them. It’s not something you can fake!” Lynda is also very aware of the importance of good customer service in our industry. “We aren’t on the main street in Cirencester, we’re on a side street, and we rely a lot on word of mouth to keep a steady stream of customers coming through the door. We have a lot of regulars who come in every week, and it’s nice to build up relationships, and to see those people coming in and recommending us to their friends and families.”

Our secret shopper also commented on the knowledge of the staff, and that is another thing that Lynda prides herself on. “Knowledge is absolutely vital to running a successful health food store. Our customers need to be able to trust us. They come in with health problems, food allergies or intolerances, and if we gave them the wrong advice or didn’t know how to help them, then we would be failing in our mission. Here, we are all HFI trained. I’m a naturopath, and one of our other staff members is currently training to be a naturopath, too. Plus we all go on lots of training seminars that are run by some of the brands that we stock. But it’s not just about having the knowledge; you have to be able to pass it on in a way that doesn’t seem like a sales pitch. We listen to our customers, and really want to hear their feedback on the products that we recommend.”

Another key to success is to offer a wide range of services, and one of Nutrition Centre’s most popular features is their juice bar. “We do regular veg and fruit juices and smoothies, as well as a juice of the month. It’s nice when people come in for a juice and end up browsing the other things that we sell,” says Lynda. But Lynda is also aware of the dangers of resting on her laurels. “We are always introducing new products, and new ideas to increase awareness of healthy living. Right now we have a lot of people coming in looking for ways to reduce the sugar in their diets, or for alternatives to foods containing gluten, as there has been so much publicity in this area. We also stock a lot of natural skincare, and we do ‘tasting days’ when people can come in and have facials and treatments to try out our products. We want to make sure we offer what customers really want, and that’s why this Better Retailing Secret Shopper award means so much: it shows that we are succeeding.”

Nutrition Centre can be found at 22 Castle Street, Cirencester, GL7 1QH

Third place: Antimony Balance, London

The staff of Antimony Balance in London's Farringdon Road

Antimony Balance is triumphantly achieving the difficult task of bringing health, vitality and peace to one of the busiest business streets in our capital.

When our Secret Shopper visited Antimony Balance on Farringdon Road, London, she was immediately impressed by the exterior of the store, which had brightly coloured flowers painted on the windows and a bright, jolly, welcoming feel: “From the moment I walk up the shop, I am impressed. The exterior of the store has a bright, jolly, welcoming feel to it.”

Farringdon Road is very busy and a bit stressful, but this store provides an oasis of calm, with its wooden floors and sleek, attractive displays, which also impressed our Secret Shopper: “The store layout and design was eye-catching and appealing, with a great range of products on display.”

Bryony Afferson-Day, who has been a shop assistant here for just over a year, says that they make a lot of effort to make the shop the kind of place that busy, stressed city workers can come to to have a break from the rat race. “The atmosphere in here is lovely, and it’s a combination of the look of the store and the people who work here. Most of our customers work in the City and are often stressed and pushed for time, so we want this to be somewhere they feel they can come to get away from it all. We have a dedicated seating area where customers are welcome to just sit and read our selection of health books and magazines. Plus all the staff are very calm and very friendly. It’s a really lovely place to work.”

The most asked-for products at Antimony Balance include natural skincare and beauty, which Bryony thinks is becoming more and more popular: “Everyone is more aware these days that what they put on their skin is absorbed into their bodies, and people with skin allergies or sensitivities come to us for recommendations.” Also popular are superfoods. “People with very busy working lives are keen to find ways of getting quick, easy boosts of lots of nutrients. As a result we sell a lot of hemp protein, spirulina and maca powders, which can just be sprinkled into smoothies or onto cereal.”

Our Secret Shopper was also very impressed with the knowledge of the member of staff who served her, and how helpful and sympathetic she was, noting that ‘the assistant was friendly, knowledgeable and... seemed to take a genuine interest in my health problem.’ Bryony is pleased that our writer had such a positive experience.

“Customer service is of vital importance to everyone who works at Antimony Balance. We’re absolutely delighted to have come third in the Better Retailing Secret Shopper Awards. It’s really important to us to build good relationships with our customers. Because this isn’t really a residential area, the vast majority of our customers work here, and if they’re going to make a visit to our shop part of their working day we have to offer them something that makes them want to keep coming back. If they’re stressed or unwell, we want them to feel that Antimony Balance is a place that they can come to to get help and advice, and to get a bit of respite from their busy lives.”

There’s no doubt that Antimony Balance are succeeding in their mission to provide a beacon of healthy living and vitality in a hectic, busy part of London – long may it continue!

Antimony Balance can be found at 47 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JB

Read our latest Secret Shopper report here...