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Campfire gatherings and other shenanigans

Alan McGrath
National Organiser, Health Stores Ireland

What do you do when you get locked down to a 5km radius? Well, you can wander around in circles discovering new stones in grass verges – or you can take to Zoom like everyone else.

Irish retailers have been gathering for a weekly virtual campfire chat. We’re getting good at it. Mute-unmute. ‘Are you there, Shirley?’ ‘Finn, you’re next’. It started as a ‘how’s it going?’ but over the last few weeks we have turned it around to ‘where are we going?’ and it’s all been positive and optimistic. ‘Lovely, warm, caring and sharing, with some funny moments’ according to Mary Mac in Sligo.

While some of the topics have become unmentionables, truly debated now to beyond the point of reason, we are now talking about post-pandemic planning. Training, break-out instore activities, sector marketing and normalcy are the current hot topics.

Over the last few years Irish retailers have engaged with Health Food Institute under the system of an academic year. Sign up in September, exams in May. It kept us working as a collective and provided a focal point and motivator for retailers and candidates. It allowed us to award top students and acclaim the retailers with high participation rates. The pandemic may have disrupted this of late, but Health Stores Ireland are gearing up for a renewed engagement for 2021, as a collective, within a stated academic term and with the goal of a highly trained and acclaimed sector in our sights.

We’ve had some interesting discussions and brain-draining sessions on possible break-out activities. Some retailers such as The Aloe Tree (search ‘Luka Bloom live at The Aloe Tree in Ennistymon’ on YouTube) and Organico in Bantry have demonstrated ways of keeping customers engaged during restrictive trading terms. We are examining ways that this can become a feature of the health food sector. ‘At the heart of your community’ is our current slogan and we are discussing ways of expanding this key aspect of independent retailing in a post pandemic normalcy.

Our customers will need a long, collective community hug over the coming months. We need to start warming up for this and be ready for the great embrace. Diversifying product and service offerings to meet the demands of a post-pandemic society is something that needs deep and meaningful examination.

Regardless of planned repositioning, the product offering via Irish independent stores has been changing. Health Stores Ireland has begun involving itself in procurement and contracting on behalf of members. Procurement light: scoping out new suppliers at Biofach and other virtual trade events. Procurement heavy: where we are engaging in one-to-one meetings with international trade boards and local enterprise hubs.

Innovation is at the core of our sector. The absence of in-person trade shows has left a chasm that could easily be filled with the highly funded and well-trained purchasing departments of online giants, multiples and discounters. While we’ve grumbled in the past about being used as a stepping stone to mass market for burgeoning brands, it was a role that did expand our customer base. We need to ensure that independent health stores retain this role but with protective measures to prevent us from being walked on and abused in the future.

Health Stores Ireland is the professional trade association representing more than 110 independent health stores in Ireland. Visit, Facebook

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