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What is the new normal for health food retailing?

Most health stores stayed open during lockdown as essential retailers and many reduced their opening times. Customer 'count' may have been down during lockdown, but customer 'spend' increased dramatically for many.

For others, deliveries, click-and-collect and online shopping surged and formed strong possibilities for a new-look approach to retailing. Here, we feature several health food retailers to reveal what they did and what they are planning to do as Britain's high streets reopen.

Noah's Health Food Store, Wallington

✔ Open during lockdown
✔ Staff furloughed
✘ Online shopping
✔ Deliveries

"We continued to stay open during lockdown so very quickly I put procedures in place for the staff and customers," said owner Ruth Noah. "Social distancing, vigorous cleaning regimes and providing sanitisers and protective gear have all been essential to continuing to run the business. Signage inside and outside the shop has also been very important.

"We adjusted our opening times shutting slightly earlier than usual most days and closing on a Wednesday. Staff adapted so well and I am very proud of their commitment and dedication to getting things right, some picking up more shifts as two had to be furloughed due to shielding.

"We have been taking a lot more phone and email orders where customers either collect or we deliver to them. This has been a lifeline for many who could not come to shop during lockdown. I've noticed they're ordering some things they would usually get from the supermarket and are often surprised by what and how much we stock."

Wallington farmers' market had to close and the charity that runs it, Ecolocal, had nowhere to sell their plants. Noah's offered to help by setting up display tables outside the shop and taking sales for them for free. It helped them out and added a bit of theatre, and the odd sale to Noah's too.

Noah's will keep some of the practices going even as normality returns. "I am already looking at ways I'm working and becoming more efficient with my time," said Ruth. "Our book-keeper who also deals with payroll was furloughed at the beginning of lockdown. I took the opportunity to do more electronically which saves time. This experience has definitely given us the opportunity to re-evaluate our processes.

"With more people working from home and staying local this should turn out to our advantage as the pace of life may now change."

Sunshine Health Shop, Stroud

✔ Open during lockdown
✔ Staff furloughed
✘ Online shopping

Owner Ray Hill was sent home by his staff at the beginning of lockdown. "They insisted I work from home due to my age," he said. "At least that's what they told me!"

Sunshine has been open six days a week from 8.30am to 5.30pm. "We opened like we normally do because we sell food, supplements, herbal and homeopathic medicines and other essential items to a discerning public," he said.

"Our bakery staff have also been burning the midnight oil to ensure the shop has a good supply of organic wholemeal and other varieties of bread, cakes and savouries.

"In terms of purchases, the business has not changed a great deal except for a significant increase in the carbohydrates – bread, flour, rice, pasta – when we can get it. Fortunately, having a bakery helped as we were able to meet the demand for flour by weighing up sack after sack in one or two kilo bags. We have never sold so much flour and yeast as the customers got into a lockdown baking routine.

"I think the customer numbers and spend has been the most interesting observation. Our weekly sales were astronomical prior to the lockdown and that will keep the wolf from the door for us to look after the vulnerable staff who had to self-isolate and give a bit more to those who have braved the virus by staying in their roles and making sure we could stay open for business.

"The customer count has, give or take, halved and the spend doubled. I can only assume people are eating more or shopping for those less able."

The store was too busy to think about online shopping, and even took its website down mid-March due to overwhelming demand.

"Getting what we need in the way of stock has not been easy," added Ray. "For the most part we rely on The Health Store, Tree Of Life, Infinity and Minton's as we always have, and they have all done their best to give us the service we need. Long may it continue.

"There won't be a 'new normal', as they say, for Sunshine. We shall continue as we did before and through this crisis and, hopefully, come out of it okay, offering the same service to all those customers who before and during have supported us."

Wild Oats, Bristol

✔ Open during lockdown
✔ Online shopping
✔ Deliveries

Wild Oats initiated a number of preventative measures in store, such as controlled entry, protecting staff and clearly marked safe zones.

"Thankfully, we are blessed with wonderful staff, who worked tirelessly both in maintaining outstanding customer service and at the same time ensuring the safety of both themselves and our customers," said owner Mike Abrahams.

"In turn our wonderfully loyal customers continued to support us by both adapting to the in-store changes and in reaching out personally to us. We are proud to be playing a part in the local community and will continue to be here to help those who need it.

"We remained open when the first instructions from the Government came through, although immediately after the first two weeks of lockdown, we felt the need to shut our doors for a brief period to allow the team to recuperate after such intensive trading conditions and for restocking and deep cleaning.

Planet Organic

✔ Open during lockdown
✔ Online shopping
✘ Cafés

Peter Marsh, CEO of Planet Organic, talked to Better Retailing Magazine about how the 15 stores faced lockdown and the New Normal.

"Under social distancing regulations, we could only accommodate a smaller number of customers at any one time. That said, we specialise in nutritious food, in health products too. And these things have inevitably been in demand while the world faces a health crisis.

"All 15 stores qualified as essential retailers. But we chose to temporarily close two of them, Devonshire Square and Tottenham Court Walk. They have always catered to workers more than residents. Closing them allowed us to focus our energies on the stores which have residential customer profiles.

"One major change was closing our cafés and food-to-go offerings. Happily, they are now coming back. People really missed the daily rituals, the small treats, the oat flat white or smoothie!

"Physical store sales are stable, allowing for increased ATV (average transaction value) but fewer customer visits. Online sales, though, greatly increased."

What will 'new normal' mean for Planet Organic?

"A complete focus on customer safety and customer confidence: doing the best things possible and being seen to do them. Our stores have always been concentrated on health and wellbeing and we will continue to support the communities local to our stores."

Food For Living, Dartford

✔ Open during lockdown
✔ Stock shortages
✘ Online shopping
✔ Business as usual

The store remained open with slightly reduced hours, six days a week and its 'new normal' will be business as normal.

"The customer count has dropped but the average customer spend has increased," said owner John Frisby. "We don't operate online – I tried it years ago and I find the whole thing a total bore and too demanding on my routine.

"Supplies have been understandably poor but on the whole customers have been sympathetic. One thing that was handy was that during the first couple of 'panic weeks' we did clear a fair bit of dead stock.

"We have operated very much 'business as usual'. I think it's the responsibility of every individual to decide how they want to react to the current situation but to also respect other people's fears and anxieties. On the whole our customers have been pretty sensible about everything and they have been very grateful that we have remained open."

Best Health Food Shops, Tunbridge Wells, Uckfield, Worthing Broadwater & Shoreham-by-Sea

✔ Open during lockdown
✔ Deliveries
✔ Online shopping planned
✔ Cashless

"We wanted to do absolutely everything and anything we could to stay open," said Len Glenville.

Within the first week of lockdown the stores had implemented Call and Collect and Call and Deliver services. "To offer an ecommerce site with nationwide delivery, from scratch with no infrastructure in place, would just have been too much of an undertaking to get ready in time," Len said, "although we have something in the pipeline at the moment but it's a monster of a project.

"We are very grateful for our loyal, and new, customers who have continued to support us by shopping local through all this."

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