The Russian billionaire buying health food chain Holland & Barrett, said he was looking for future stars of the High Street to invest in. Does the protein shake-to-dried fruit store really fit that bill?
Are you one of those people who check your sleep app before you even throw back the covers in the morning? Do you chuck some chia seeds and goji berries into a blender, and run through a mindfulness routine until it’s ready?
If so, you’re part of the booming trend for “wellness” that by rights ought to be making Holland & Barrett a supernova of the High Street already.
It should have been easy, given our almost insatiable appetite for avoiding things (gluten, parabens, nuts) as well as adding things (fibre, vitamin D, protein) for the sake of our health.
But Holland & Barrett, rather than riding the well-being wave, has been coasting, say observers.
When you walk into a Holland & Barrett shop the ubiquitous “buy one get one half price” offers can give the impression of a cut-price supermarket.
“Holland and Barrett has lost its true meaning outside offers and that’s not a healthy strategy,” says Kate Hardcastle, consumer expert at retail consultancy, Insight With Passion.
In some branches it can feel as though not much has changed since the chain was first founded in 1870.
“They are this really antiquated retailer on the High Street. They’re fuddy-duddy,” says Ms Hardcastle.
“The impression is, it’s a till point, without engagement, where you just select and purchase.
“And that’s not where consumers buying into this trend are at.”
Holland & Barrett’s biggest sellers:
- Turmeric capsules
- Omega 3 Fish Oil
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Cod Liver Oil
“They don’t strike me as a superstar of the High Street at all,” says independent retail analyst Richard Hyman.
“That’s not to say I don’t think it’s a decent solid-ish company” (although he thinks the new owners are paying an “extraordinarily generous price” for it).
The difficulty is that consumers generally pick up on health and well-being trends online, and it only takes a click or two to then order your bottle of skin-smoothing snail gel or bag of super seaweed peanuts and have them delivered to your door.
In which case it is hard to see what will draw people into a High Street store.
“In very simple terms you have to provide something in a face-to-face environment that can’t be replicated online or you won’t have a physical business left,” says Mr Hyman.
What you need is something “aspirational, inspirational or added-value service-orientated with lots of theatre,” he says.
Five new Holland & Barrett “More” stores that have opened in recent years suggest the chain has cottoned on to the need for change – and may give an inkling of the kind of potential its new owner sees in it.
These stores are making shopping more of an experience, offering vegan nail bars and on-the-go protein shake stations, alongside the chance to have health checks including measuring your Body Mass Index, hydration and fat percentage.
Even some smaller branches now offer fruit, seed and nut pick ‘n’ mix, “make your own body scrubs” stations, and oil and vinegar bars.
But they’ll need to take that modernising effort further, says Kate Hardcastle, if they want to fit snugly into the well-being trend.
“I do see them as a really big potential player, but they need to be investing more in becoming appealing to today’s customers.
“If you think of brands out there: from Whole Foods to Nike, there’s a significant investment in relationship with their customers”.
She points to Boots, which has built up trust in its healthcare advice by offering flu vaccinations and pharmacists giving in-store advice.
“Where you have specialisms in stores, they work very well – from baristas making coffee through to make-up counter demonstrations with make-up artists,” she says.
And she believes there’s potentially a Holland & Barrett-shaped hole in the wellness market for just that kind of retail-to-service chain.
“In that industry, with the well-being coaches, and lifestyle and diet gurus, someone needs to pull this all together.
“That’s the direction I’d go if I were taking them to superstar retailer,” she says, pointing out the chain does have a strong brand presence that could help make that happen.
“I’d make it cut through,” she says. “It’s sometimes who shouts the loudest.”