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Two lockdowns, fighting spirit, and an unexpected hand-grenade

Best Health Food Shop has five stores in Kent and Sussex and, like everyone, the last year has been the strangest and hardest that anyone in business, especially retail, has ever experienced. Mel Beard (pictured with partner Len Glenville) ponders the future. Interview by Alistair Forrest.

Looking back, what has the pandemic meant to your business?

We took the difficult decision back in March 2020 to keep all our stores open as normal, while doing everything we could to keep everyone safe. This decision was made for both business and customer reasons. Out of our five stores, three of them were only opened or taken over by us in 2019, so they had barely had a chance to get going before the restrictions hit.

From a commercial perspective, closing these infant stores would have had such a huge financial impact and there was a risk they would never reopen. This would be heart-breaking for us and the staff who had worked so hard to set up and make them a success.

We also, and just as importantly, wanted to be able to help our communities and customers and be available to provide products, advice and help them through this time. As well as offer, to some, the only social interaction that there was available to them in an isolated lockdown.

How did this work out?

Ultimately, we found that not only were the customers hugely grateful for us being open, but also the staff who have admitted that being able to work and keep busy was a huge benefit to their mental health and wellbeing, as well as financially as they knew we were doing everything we could to guarantee their jobs for the future as much as possible.

What about online services?

We have never had an e-commerce website before now as we wanted to put all our energies and focus into our bricks and mortar shops. We had felt that having an online shop could potentially cloud the customer service message. However, 2020 became all about online and so we have had to reassess this and plan for our website to incorporate a full e-shop, but this has been no easy task!

We have been working on our new website, but the costs seem to spiral as they do with these projects. But we wanted to really make it something special that we could be proud of and that will offer our customers a superb user journey too.

We are excited to be launching this and the new date is March 1. We are aware that we may have missed the boat in regard to the huge increases in online shopping last year, but we can’t change that now and we felt that our energies were better placed ensuring the shops were running smoothly instead.

How have things changed with the second lockdown?

The rest of the year, since the break of the first lockdown, was erratic to say the least. Demand for delivery dropped to barely nothing, even in the second lockdown. There have been tiny flurries of panic buying but on the whole it has been just low sales and footfall in most shops with some busy periods in December for Christmas.

It has obviously been challenging and now we find ourselves in a catch 22 as we have been entitled to no further grants due to being open, and now even if we did close, as we haven’t been forced to, we still won’t get anything. We have had no choice but to battle through and hope that financially we can reach the other side of this with all five shops still intact, but there are no guarantees.

We hear you’ve also had an unexpected hand-grenade lobbed in?

We found out late last year that a certain big supplement manufacturing company, which already has a health food shop in East Grinstead, has decided to open a second store in Tunbridge Wells, practically opposite us on the street we are in.

We spent a great deal of time and money completely refurbishing this small but long-standing shop and have worked so hard on promoting it, getting new products and offering different services to our customers, as well as the huge battle we have had over this last year to keep it going. So this move has completely confounded us.

What next for the best health food shop vision?

As we have with everything that has been thrown at us over the past year, we will continue to fight on and do what we can to improve the shops. Stay flexible and adaptable to our customers and offer exceptional service.

We have continued to bring in new products, such as launching our fresh and frozen organic fruit & veg in June last year in reaction to customer requests and shopping habits, and have continued to market and advertise despite not being able to hold events, but all you can do is try new and inventive ideas to keep one step ahead, despite the ever-changing environment and customer needs. Food is still the best seller but obviously things like vitamin D are increasingly popular.

And your staff?

We have been giving staff free supplements to help boost their immune systems and providing webinars on stress and taking time out. It has been tough for everyone and it is so important that we look after our staff. We have lost some along the way for various reasons, one lady who is 83 and felt it was not safe for her to come back, and others that had to look after relatives or just felt that they did not want to come in, which we totally respected. We have a great team and we are all doing our best to look after each other and be aware of everyone’s mental wellbeing.

We are, just like everyone else, hoping that there is some sense of normality restored in the coming months and we just continue to do what we can to offer great products, great service and hopefully shops that will be there for the long term.

We look forward to the day when 2020 becomes a distant memory!

What’s your lockdown story and how will you grow your business in 2021? Contact the editor, [email protected]

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