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‘We want to support independent retailers, and inform consumers’

Lee Holdstock from The Soil Association talks about why independent retailers are so important when it comes to getting the organic message across

Over the last few years we have seen a shift in the organic market, with the multiples’ share slowing, and more of the market moving to the independent sector. As a result of the economic downturn there was a marked reduction in the number of organic lines available within the multiple retailers. As a result independent retailers were able to capitalise on the more niche products that were no longer on offer in the bigger stores. With current market analysis it is clear that the multiples are struggling to recover from the shift and the gradual creep towards the independents is continuing. All the evidence tells us that consumers who want to buy organic didn’t go away during the recession – they just changed the way that they shop.

The Soil Association has always seen independent retailers as a really important channel, not just because of this shift in shopping habits, but because of the important role they play in communities and the relationships they have with their customers. Health food stores are not just shops; they are often community hubs, where people go to find out about how to live a natural and healthy lifestyle, and the retailers who work in them are providing a service that goes far beyond just selling things.

Over the last couple of years retailers have expressed a need for more support in selling organic. We have become aware that there is more the Soil Association can do to support organic sales in this area. It’s also a good strategy to capitalise on current shopping trends – the shift to independent retailers in the organic sector – by improving and honing the support that we offer them in selling organic products.

The key to the campaign was to evaluate the existing offer from The Soil Association and find out what independent retailers actually wanted and needed. The process began with a round-table discussion with a group of independent retailers and wholesalers, which we hosted with help from the Organic Trade Board. We asked the assembled retailers and wholesalers what support would be valuable, what we do already that they think is useful in terms of training and education, and how we could do better. This happened in October 2014; since then we have been working on the campaign, and we launched the whole thing at Natural and Organic Products Europe in April.

The new pack available to retailers this year includes a visual merchandising guide with tips and ideas to help maximise sales of organic products in-store; a point-of-sale marketing toolkit which has shelf-edge wobblers, and signage which encompasses clear, concise and consistent messages about why customers should be buying organic produce. We also plan to provide messaged packaging, and are currently following further consultation with retailers. We want to increase consumer knowledge about organic products across the board and help retailers to inform their customers in order to grow the organic market.

Because independent retailers are usually small businesses, they don’t necessarily have the resources to offer their staff in-house training, or the ability to deliver training very easily, and so often rely on outside organisations to provide this. We are proud of what we already offer – last summer some 4,000 people, a large number of whom were staff from independent health stores, underwent our training scheme – but we want to step that up by providing resources that retailers can use instore to help get their staff up-to-speed on the organic offer, whilst continuing to ensure as many people as possible can take part in our training.

Speaking directly to independent retailers gives us the assurance that what we are doing is really going to make a difference. We understand that organic is an important area of independent retail and we want to work together to bring our enthusiasm and knowledge to more and more customers. Joining forces is one way to get that direct message out there and I think that together the future looks bright for the organic sector in independent retail and health stores.

For more information about the Soil Association’s campaign for independents, visit

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