Ahead of reopening to the public today, Holland & Barrett (H&B) CEO Tony Buffin took NPN on a whistle-stop virtual tour of the retailer’s newly-refurbished Chelmsford store, which has been closed for two weeks while the team restructured the space to make the user experience more efficient, enjoyable and – crucially – COVID-safe.
Visually, explains Buffin, the Chelmsford store now features more wood, both in the flooring and the laminated ceiling panels – a design change intended to communicate the chain’s ethos of natural and plant-based products. A reflection of these socially-distanced times, hand sanitization points, sinks and screens are positioned throughout the store, while a temperature checking device sits at the door. “It’s not hugely invasive. I think this gives people confidence that we are … trying to check as best we can that people are healthy when they shop,” he says.
The store’s spacious new set-up – designed by retail experience agency Barrows Global – now sees food and sports nutrition at the back, and supplements and beauty at the front, in a layout which guides customers through their shopping experience. In more normal times, maintaining good flow up and down the aisles enhanced shopper experience; now, explains Buffin, it has become a matter of safety. “I didn’t think we’d say this six months ago, but you sort of want to be guided through the store; you feel a bit uncomfortable if somebody’s walking towards you now, which is a bit odd. We’ve got a sensible flow in store, I think. Customers are expecting that, and that’s one of the reasons why … they’ve said they’d be very comfortable shopping with us. They need to be able to find what they need quite quickly.”
With the floor plan now adapted to position immunity products front and centre upon entry, the team believes it will be easier to promote health without the customer having to spend too long in store searching for their VMS. “It enables customers to get in, get immunity products, get to till, pay and walk out.”
While it might appear much bigger than its previous incarnation, the branch has not moved sites – rather, an additional 220 sq ft was acquired by taking over the area formerly used as warehouse space. “We haven’t put a new format into our stores for probably ten or 15 years. We felt it was really important to start giving customers a … more modern look and feel to our stores [and] make stores easier to operate. There’s virtually no back-shop, we’re not bringing product from a mini-warehouse at the back of store – we’ve got cabinets under the shelving so we can just replenish straight to shelf, so it’s much more efficient for us but hopefully the product is displayed better for customers.”
Digitization is likely to be a bigger part of how people interact with us in future
The Chelmsford site is testing a number of digital and automated features, introducing the use of QR codes to provide product information (lessening the chances of customers physically picking up items they may not end up buying), as well as virtual consultations to allow shoppers to avoid communal touch points and limit face-to-face interaction. “The digital interaction is really important. The way I describe it is the store is a portal to the website and the website is a portal to the store. We’ve also brought click and collect into store. You receive a barcode or QR code when you buy the product [online], you scan it in front of the scanner, a door opens, you take your product and you can leave. You don’t even need to touch the store at all. We’ll obviously look to roll that out throughout the estate when we get the chance.”
In a small consultation room at the back, H&B will now offer free private health consultations, either in person or via screens. “We can either do a personal consultation or we can do a video consultation [with specialists] back in Nuneaton.” If the uptake of this service ‘is really strong’, Buffin says provisions will be made at HQ to increase its bank of specialists to meet demand.
Other features awaiting Chelmsford’s shoppers include: increased sustainable household products – a result of customer demand; a new refill station to replace the old ‘pick and mix’ bay – which Buffin says, given the current climate, no longer felt like ‘the right thing to do’; a free water refill point; and new personalized subscription service Health Box, which serves various concerns from sleep, stress and anxiety to immunity, digestion and support for vegan diets.
“The genesis of the idea was launched some time ago but it wasn’t presented well to customers. So we’ve done a lot of re-work … listened to customers about how they want their product presented to them, we’ve re-engineered it and it will be launched in September.” Buffin expects immunity boxes to sell well, along with vegan support: “Interestingly, customers are not just exclusively vegan or vegetarian, what people are doing is being vegan or vegetarian for three, four or five days in the week and then not at the weekend, so that might be corrupting the concept of vegan and vegetarian but I think it’s adapting to how customers want to live their lives and how they want to eat. We’re a broad church; we’re not trying to exclude anyone, we want to help everybody.” He also predicts the sleep products will be popular, calling it an ‘emerging problem’. “Sleep is a really important constituent of making sure people have got strong mental health.”
While a refurbishment of this scale might seem ambitious during a pandemic, Buffin says the plans have been a long time in the making. “We’ve opened some similar stores in Holland … to try and get the concept right. The stores in Holland look similar but they haven’t got as much tech in them. We’ve been working on it for nearly a year. When COVID hit I took a conscious decision to say ‘This is really important that we get our store set up’ not only for us as a business to demonstrate that we’ve got a more modern and integrated shop fit, but also because digitization is likely to be a bigger part of how people interact with us in future.
“I wanted to give our teams a sense that we are still investing in our stores. So we took a conscious decision to keep going; that wasn’t easy. We wanted to get it right so pushed the date back from the end of June to the end of July and the team have done a fabulous job in terms of getting it this far because it has not, as you can imagine, been as easy as normal.”