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Secretly shopped!

The Better Retailing Magazine Awards shortlist of three stores that scored highest in last year’s Secret Shopper series. The winner will be announced at the Health Food Institute anniversary lecture and lunch in London on June 27.

Eighth Day, Manchester

Our verdict: “Having the expert insight on hand from the store’s in-house nutritionist is a huge plus point – you can have a mini consultation for free to help with selecting the right supplement for you.”

The Eighth Day Co-op was founded in 1970, initially trading as a collective of like-minded friends with radical ideas. In the early days, the business wasn’t a health-food shop at all but had a hippy vibe and mainly sold clothes and incense. Over the years, as the membership of the co-op changed and customers’ needs changed, the business started stocking wholefoods and eventually morphed into the health-food shop and café that it is today.

Eighth Day still trades by the same principles – the products are always vegetarian, many them vegan, and the buying team gives preference to goods purchased through other ethically-run businesses, organic or co-operative producers and local manufacturers.

The co-op now employs 34 people across the business and is both a Living Wage employer and Fair Tax-accredited business. In a workers’ co-op there is no top-down management structure as the business is owned and run by its members, with every member having an equal share of the business and an equal chance to shape its future. Non-members employed by the co-op benefit from stable, well-paid employment with good conditions.

What makes Eighth Day stand out? With over 5,000 products and 49 years of trading, it’s one of the biggest and longest-running health food stores in the North West. A dedicated team of enthusiastic and friendly staff prides itself on a collective knowledge and is happy to go the extra mile for the customers.

Best Health Food Shop, Tunbridge Wells

Our verdict: “Groceries, household necessities, pampering products and even gifts could all be purchased here and abolish the need to patronise supermarkets.”

Owners Melanie Beard and Len Glenville wanted to undo the elitist reputation that some up-country health food stores may have and offer friendly, welcoming and helpful customer service. Says Len: “We will go out of our way to try to help and get any product in that a customer is looking for.” The store has trained nutritionists on hand with ongoing training to ensure all staff are knowledgeable.

The couple opened their first store in Shoreham-by-Sea in 2016 after buying it as a going concern. A store makeover maximised the space and new Emporio till systems streamlined ordering and the overall customer experience. Next day ordering for any product not in stock was immediately popular.

In October 2017, Len and Mel opened the doors of their second store in Tunbridge Wells, previously an antiques shop so carpenter Andy Greaves was in big demand making shelving from natural wood. The same Emporio till systems and more friendly and knowledgeable staff put the new store on the map. Len’s mother, Dr Marilyn Glenville cut the ribbon.

Over the past year, they have increased the range of zero packaging products by putting in refill canisters for nuts, seeds, pasta, rice and oats etc., as well as washing liquids and toiletry refills.

The couple work with local producers for honey, eggs and toiletries, including a local 11-year-old girl who makes bath bombs and soaps. “We are part of the local community, often donating to local charities and holding educational events on health matters,” says Len.

Shop Number Three – also in Tunbridge Wells – has just opened. “It was all very last minute and quite out of the blue as the existing owner gave us a call in February and asked us if we wanted to take over as he wanted to retire. So we said yes!”

So now the tried and trusted systems (and carpenter) are back on the case.

Nature’s Health Store, Penrith, Cumbria

Our verdict: “The store is bright, airy, clean and surprisingly spacious. It’s easy to navigate and is very well stocked with a number of leading ranges.”

Jean Allison’s small but beautifully formed health store opened its doors 30 years ago – and her daughter Rachel is about to take over after 10 years as a partner.

The market town of Penrith has seen many changes in those 30 years but throughout Jean has focused on wholefoods and dietary supplements to provide excellent nutrition for loyal customers.

She started with a tiny 6x12ft shop – “what you can get into that space was amazing; the first week of opening we took something like £15!”. In the first year she was storing stock in the vacuum cupboard and every other available space.

The store was then moved to a central arcade of shops but within a year had outgrown the space.

“We took the plunge and moved to a Victorian four-storey town centre building, complete with enormous financial commitment,” says Jean. “By then we had a loyal customer base, employed four part time staff and I learnt an awful lot of DIY skills!”

The biggest issue was training, and still is. “There are few people with health food skills looking for a part time job, so the only option is to continually train staff. Then I have to keep up to date with research results, new products, suppliers, trade shows, health and safety, tax man etc. Being slightly hyperactive is probably a bonus.”

When Holland & Barrett opened 100 yards away, the store almost faltered. “That moved us to advertise, use everything Facebook had to offer, and walk miles with leaflet drops,” she says. “We scoured the country for new products, demanding discounts.” Rachel’s youthful vision and media skills clearly worked wonders.

Working with Jean and Rachel are four part-time staff and university student Aiden “here for the summer. Again.”

Read the current Secret Shopper report here...