Why becoming more than a shop could be your biggest opportunity

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By turning your store into a real community asset, valued by the local council and consumers alike, you stand to win lots of news customers – and keep old ones coming back.

It’s been an awful long time in coming but, for the first time since the end of 2007, the British economy seems to be slowly improving. Over the past few weeks the smile on the face of George Osborne has been growing broader as the key economic indicators get better; predicted growth rates up, inflation down, unemployment down.

Despite these statistics that point to a slowly-recovering economy, I do wonder if readers of this column are actually feeling any improvement yet. The inflation rate may be down, but some modern necessities seem to be getting ever more expensive; politicians seem to have spent the past two months talking about little else other than energy costs, to take just one example.

The Great Recession, from 2008 until 2011, has shaken everything up; high streets up and down the country have suffered terribly. It is unlikely that retailing will ever quite be the same again, thanks to the shattering effects of the slowdown combined with the pace of technological change and the shift of consumer priorities.

What does seem more likely is that these increasingly positive economic numbers will not be followed by an immediate boom as we saw in the early-90s. Selling natural products will remain a competitive market in which all involved will need to take advantage of new trends and new opportunities if they want to make a success of it.

There is an opportunity for natural health retailers but not an obvious one – it is contained within the Government’s NHS reforms, perhaps the subject that politicians talk about the most when not discussing your electricity bills.

Within these controversial reforms was one un-controversial part, the devolution of responsibility for public health to local authorities. Along with a £4bn pot of money, county councils and metropolitan boroughs were told to improve some of this country’s woeful public health outcomes and keep more people healthier for long. Crucially, the onus is on councils to keep an increasingly elderly population away from expensive hospital care.

Many local authorities are keen to innovate, an enthusiasm partly explained by the fact that, as with the rest of the public sector, they are facing considerable budget cuts. They are happy to work with anybody who they think can help them to help their populations live happier, healthier lives.

This is the retailers’ chance – with a site often in the centre of town and an established reputation, it is your opportunity to turn your store into a health information hub. Obviously the first place to start is on the natural health products that you sell (though, as we know, European regulations often work against industry being able to provide consumers with appropriate information) but don’t stop there.

There’s a whole world of information about local NHS services that you could offer your customers, from services to help them lose weight, to help with stopping smoking and much more. Many retailers are already some of the way there – they have worked hard to turn their store from an everyday health food shop into one that offers both products that are good for you and advice on how a consumer can maintain their own health.

To win new customers – and keep your old ones coming back – retailers need to seize this opportunity with both hands and turn their store into a real community asset, a vibrant centre appreciated by the local council and customers alike. It’s something new and something different, but it may just help you and your store through a few more tricky years.

Follow Chris on twitter at @CllrWhitehouse


By Chris Whitehouse

Political affairs commentator
Christopher Whitehouse is MD of leading political and communications consultancy and is an adviser to Consumers for Health Choice and the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance.

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