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August 2021 update

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Post-lockdown – a look ahead

Confirmation that restrictions are to be lifted have been met with caution and calls for greater support for businesses in recovery. In the final part of our series of Covid-19 features, industry discusses the path ahead out of lockdown and adjusting for the future.

When Boris Johnson confirmed the final stage of lockdown restrictions were indeed to lift on July 19 after a four-week delay, it marked a pivotal moment since the Coronavirus pandemic first emerged. It was the first time that all restrictions would be lifted, allowing us to live freely for the first time in well over a year.

Yet the Prime Minister made the announcement with caution, commenting that he “cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough. This pandemic is not over. This disease, Coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and for
your family”. And indeed, at the time of writing, we are clearly not out of the woods, with cases rising hugely. Having said that, the vaccination programme continues at a pace and the link between cases and hospital admissions does appear to be broken.

When it comes to the high street, the British Retail Consortium has recorded the strongest quarter on record as pent-up demand is released by consumers. Yet the consortium has also reminded that we are not out of the woods yet, with challenges still remaining, compounded by the fact much of the Government support to businesses will lift as restrictions go.

In fact, despite the strong quarter, in other data, the organisation revealed that according to BRC-Sensormatic IQ data, total UK footfall decreased by 27.6 per cent in June (Yo2Y), with a 0.1 percentage point improvement from May. This is above the three-month average decline of 31.3 per cent.

Helen Dickinson OBE, Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, commented on the data: “Overall, footfall levels saw little improvement on the previous month, though retail parks and
shopping centres experienced an uptick. Footfall is down on pre-pandemic levels, as the public are making more purposeful shopping trips, with less browsing and more buying. With most overseas holidays on hold, many Britons have sought outof- town escapes while foreign tourist numbers have fallen. This appears to have helped footfall in smaller towns and cities.”

And Andy Sumpter, Retail Consultant EMEA for Sensormatic Solutions, added: The UK’s footfall in June was mildly better than what we saw in May. This small uplift in footfall (only seen in England and Wales) was perhaps unsurprising given that Covid rules were, by and large, the same. Whilst confidence from the vaccination program and some indoor dining might have given a much-needed boost, the delayed rollback of restrictions, due to the accelerated spread of the delta variant will have dampened the impact.

“With most restrictions expected to be lifted on July 19, we can finally hope to see what the somewhat overreferenced new normal may actually look like. As more people start to venture back to their offices, the much-missed commuter business will be a welcome return. Retailers will also be hoping their customers have missed browsing without restrictions, as much as they have missed
their customers.”

Health food experience

We have certainly heard mixed reports from retailers in terms of trade and footfall, although the latter appears to be rising as more people come out to shop. But what are the overall concerns as we move ahead?

Anita Hatch, co-owner of Natures Corner, in Newbury, Berkshire, commented: “We haven’t seen an obvious pattern like we did with the initial outbreak of Covid, when you couldn’t get your hands on immune boosting vitamins for love nor money. Now, we are seeing less browsing and more purposeful buying. The footfall is still down with many offices choosing to encourage employees to work from home.

“We would normally be focusing on the holiday season with sun creams, B1 and insect repellents being top of the list. With many people still not going away for the summer, we will have to rethink our approach this year. Collagen has been a big talking point this year with more and more celebrities talking about the benefits for skin health on social media.”

And are stores finding shoppers are confident to come out and shop?

“We still have many customers who have been nervous to be amongst the general public and many who are extremely anxious or uncomfortable wearing masks. It has taken the joy out of shopping for many consumers,” Anita reported.

Andrew Goodacre, Chief Executive of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira), went on: “Footfall on a national level is down 25 per cent on the high streets, with the largest impact in the city centres. Independent retailers tend to occupy more local locations and whilst footfall is still down, we have seen a greater intent to purchase from shoppers (resulting in increased spend per head). Since reopening, trade has been encouraging but any recovery is fragile.”

And what about shopper confidence generally?

“Footfall suggests not but then again, we need to see the rest of the high street fully reopened to make a proper assessment. There are more people shopping locally as they work from home,” Andrew added.

And then, if we look at the supplier experience, Cheryl Thallon, MD and founder of Viridian Nutrition, commented: “Demand for nutritional supplements overall has significantly and sustainably increased. Food supplements are not as seasonal as many might assume. We’re not seeing any massive changes in nutrition categories. Vitamin C and D were in high demand through the peaks of
Covid-19 and continue to be best-sellers, but the most common conditions and ailments – joints, women’s health, mood, gut health and energy – continue to dominate.”

She continued: “Ninety five per cent of Viridian sales are through specialist independent health stores – they are more than important to us, they are in our DNA. We worked with the UK and Irish health store associations (NAHS and IAHS) to create a ‘post-pandemic outreach toolkit’ (printed and online versions) to help stores rebuild confidence and drive footfall in their locations.

Viridian curated the information mainly generated by real in-stores experience and successes, designed the layout, provided the photography and printed 2,500 copies – then distributed them free of charge to independent health food stores throughout the UK and Ireland.”

Theresa Cutts, Nutritional Consultant for brands including Allicin and Vestra Nutrition, went on: “Working with a number of brands, it seems to be getting busier, but varies a lot according to region. The city areas are still quiet, but stores based in smaller towns or in residential areas seem to be gaining footfall slowly but surely.

“This time of year, I would normally expect to see a steady supply pattern with few problems, but the issues following Brexit and Covid seem to still be affecting many suppliers, whether it be the shortage of containers or products and raw materials getting stuck at borders.

“I think a lot of consumers are now considering supplements for immune health as part of their regular wellness regime as they might a multivit or probiotic. As we come out of restrictions,
there may well be an increase in demand as many people are feeling cautious and this could be an opportunity for retailers to highlight immune supporting foods and supplements.”

Des Brennan, Head of Global Sales at Natures Aid, agreed, adding: “We have continued to see a higher level of demand for immune-supportive products than we would traditionally expect in the summer months – although this is less pronounced than in 2020, as people begin to feel more confident with the roll out of second vaccinations. However, with projections of a tough ‘flu season as the world opens up again, we anticipate interest in immune supportive supplements to rise again in the winter months.

“Overall, demand is up on last year, and we have seen a shift in focus towards general wellbeing and a preventative proactive approach to health and wellness. Increasingly, consumer behaviour is demonstrating that supplements are beginning to be seen more and more as a key part of daily routine.”

He added: “Supplements to support general health and wellbeing, such as multivitamins and vitamin D, continue to perform strongly. Our Children’s Mini Drops are always incredibly popular, and
we have seen increased interest in this range following our Help Them Thrive campaign, which launched in 2020.

“We have also seen an increased interest in eco-ethical consumerism, with consumers becoming increasingly interested in the make-up of ingredients and setting higher expectations for
suppliers to be both transparent and sustainable: our new Wild Earth range is designed to meet and exceed these expectations.”

But patterns are slowly being established again.

Des commented: “For all its challenges, the pandemic has shown our industry in its finest light: Retailers have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, adapting to new ways of working
and supporting their customers and communities. They have done a fantastic job, continuing to support health and offer advice, and as a result, many people have discovered a love for our independent health food stores.

“For Natures Aid, UK independents are the foundations of our business. They are our heartland, and it is a great source of pride that many of our retailers have been with us since the very beginning. Throughout the pandemic, we have felt it hugely important that our retailers continued to have access to the holistic support they have come to expect from us. Our dedicated Area Sales Managers continued to work remotely throughout, being available via phone and email, and regularly checking in with all of their customers. The team are now starting to get back on the road, safely and carefully.”

Cheryl added: “Our sales team of 10 territory managers are now back on the road visiting retailers and their staff, offering training and sales support, after a frustrating period of telephone calls and Zoom meetings. Our in-house technical team of five, with masters and degree-level educated nutritionists, have been on-call throughout the pandemic for one-to-one support and group trainings via Zoom.”

And Theresa went on: “Digital contact has been one of the major ways of staying in touch with retailers. As part of my role with Natural Trade Brokers, I have regularly produced Mailchimp newsletters to update promotions and new products, as well as creating mailouts around particular topics, creating collections of products or ideas that hopefully give retailers something to think about or use as readymade content. As soon as the first lockdown began, we increased social media and digital activity, helping highlight to consumers that their local store was open and the place to go for their regular shopping and good advice to help them through the pandemic.”

Planning ahead

Retailers and suppliers were forced in the early days to manage of the day to day, as opposed to looking ahead more strategically, simply to meet demand from shoppers. But has this impacted on NPD from suppliers? And can we expect more in the months ahead?

“We plan our new product development up to two years in advance, so that has been maintained and continues. We extended our vitamin D and C categories and we did develop an Immune
Complex, due to numerous requests from customers,” Cheryl revealed.

“The greatest challenge has been ennsuring we have plentiful stock of our current list – especially the top 50 best sellers. Covid and Brexit have thrown the supply chain into a spin, and we’re finally getting back into a full stock situation (almost). It hasn’t just been ingredients that have been delayed or scarce, even packaging availability has been affected by these twin crises.”

Tim Gaunt, Head of Research & Development at Natures Aid, went on: “We have seen unprecedented growing demand from consumers, as many people look for more proactive ways to take care of their
wellbeing. From a product innovation perspective, this is incredibly exciting. The outdoors has provided a refuge for many of us over the course of the pandemic, and getting back in touch with nature has helped many become more aware of he environment and the need to protect it. With this in mind, our biggest launch of 2021 has been Wild Earth, the world’s first specifically designed planet friendly, eco-friendly, sustainable range of vitamins and supplements. We have launched two exciting new additions to our Immune Support offering: Immune Effervescent and Vitamin D3 4000iu.

Theresa continued: “There are a great many opportunities for brands to develop products that will suit a post pandemic market. I would like to see supplements that are more than just ‘another capsule’ to swallow, perhaps products that become part of our lifestyle by being added to meals, for example. I am excited to be working with some brands that have some different approaches coming out.

“There are opportunities not just in the area of immune, but mental wellness and gut health, especially as the awareness of the gut/immune connection becomes even more established. Consumers will hopefully be looking to maintain wellness, rather than trying to treat illness and I think that creates an exciting time for our industry.”

But many believe the high street will recover, and that there remains a place for it in our society.

Andrew cautioned: “At the moment, any recovery is fragile. Even without restrictions, some of the increase in internet shopping will remain there. I suspect that many of the large chains will
continue to close stores (as per GAP) and retail in general will be less dominant on the high street, especially in the city centres. However, independent retailers are still loyal to the high street, have different business models and can adjust quicker.

“The trend to local shopping will also be helpful to indies. But there are still factors that retailers cannot control apart from Covid – high prices due to Brexit, supply chain issues, inflationary pressures causing a rise in interest rates etc. The recovery is happening, but it is very fragile.”

Cheryl added: “The high street has been under pressure ever since the first mail order catalogue appeared, followed by supermarkets, out of town shopping centres and now the internet. Covid
has sped up the growth of online sales, but I strongly believe that the human connection will prevail. That’s why we’re currently seeing a transition to experience-based businesses in towns – hair salons, nail bars, tattoo parlours, and, of course, various eateries.

“People want to have shared experiences with their friends and family in their local town. The independent health food store has the opportunity to develop more experiential elements with
their businesses – obvious things like tastings and demos, but also educational events, stalls outside their shops, instore cafes, enhancing the practitioner connection, yoga or other classes – and above all, ensuring they build personal connections in their communities, knowing customers by name, linking with local schools, with local GP surgeries/link workers. Many successful stores already do this fabulously well.”

Anita added: “I think it’s going to be extremely hard and something that’s not going to happen quickly. The increase in overheads including business rates is going to put added pressure on retail and hospitality, especially if footfall is going to take its time to get back to where it was pre-Covid. I hope that this is something that is taken into consideration, but I’m
not holding my breath!”

And Des continued: “We recognise that return to the high street has been slow, but we are optimistic of a strong recovery as confidence begins to grow post ‘FreedomDay’ and as more people are double vaccinated. We anticipate the trend towards an increased focus on wellness will only continue to grow, and the high street is key to meeting this demand.

“We have also seen many new consumers introduced to the benefits of natural health over the past 18 months, with local independent retailers playing a key role, and it’s our hope that many of
these will become loyal customers long after the pandemic is over.”

Support needed

While there has been a package of measures offered to businesses during this time, there has been mixed reports in terms of their success, with calls from Bira to extend the rates relief for longer. We must also remember that many of these support measures are coming to an end.

Andrew commented: “It is now down to the way Government reduces the burden on the high street, most notably with the review (and hopefully reduction) in rates in the autumn. There also needs to be a new, more productive relationship between landlords and tenants.”

When asked what support is needed as we move forward, Cheryl commented: “Massive rates reform, local council investment in regular events/festivals in every high street/town centre, free parking in local communities (and paid parking at out-of-town sites), recognition by the medical community of the role of health food stores in healthcare, and appropriate taxation of online retailers.”

Des added: “We recognise it’s been a difficult 18 months and as we look towards the future and plan for a strong recovery, we think it’s important for all suppliers to get behind independent businesses. Consumer and shopper trends have evolved as a result of the pandemic, so it is vital we support our retailers as they evolve to meet the change.

“This includes continuing to supply the best products at the best prices, to keep businesses competitive, and maintaining an ongoing innovation funnel to excite consumers, meet
growing trends and drive growth. We also believe in supporting retailers with ongoing staff training, advice and POS and merchandising support, to ensure retailers have the tools they need to
support consumers as they return to the high street.”

And what lessons have been learnt by the trade in terms of any positives from the pandemic?

Chris Morrey, General Manager at Natures Aid, commented: “Like others, the pandemic has proven our ability to adapt to challenging circumstances and taught us to pivot and work in new,
innovative ways. For example, our Area Sales Managers have enjoyed using tools such as video calling and WhatsApp to communicate with their customers in new ways, which has, in turn, led to more regular contact and helped to reinforce already strong relationships.

“Our innovation team have also attended virtual conferences and events to continue driving our NPD agenda, to support growth for our customers, and remain connected to the trade. We
are confident we will continue to utilise all of these techniques to maximise on opportunities moving forward. But nonetheless, we have missed meeting everyone in person – both on the road and
at annual events – and we hope for more face-to-face meetings soon (providing it is safe, of course). Looking to the future, we believe finding the balance between the convenience of digital technologies and the benefits of face-to-face contact will be key.”

Cheryl added: “There is no replacement for face-to-face meetings and in-store support, so we will continue to have a physical presence, but we are also enhancing our online/distance learning
platform so those who enjoy self-learning can have access to up-to-date information at their fingertips.”

Anita added: “I feel extremely proud of the fact that we have adapted quickly in response to every curve ball which has been thrown our way and feel we have made the right decisions for the team and the business. I am looking forward to moving forward and building shopper confidence again.

“We will continue to sanitise surfaces, baskets and trolleys. Hand sanitiser will still be on offer for those that wish to use it. In regards to the use of masks by staff, we will simply give each individual the choice and respect which makes them feel most comfortable.”

And speaking from a Bira perspective, Andrew commented: “We have always believed that retailers will retain the Perspex screens near tills, etc., and some of the signage. We expect hand sanitisation will still be encouraged. It is important to remember that as employers, the retailers have to protect employees, as well as keeping customers safe.

“Many have made better use of social media to engage and connect with their communities. We have seen click and collect, deliveries, improved websites – all to supplement the shop, rather than
replace it.”

And Theresa pointed out that the increased interest in health offers independent health stores opportunity.

“Looking at the top Google searches, topics such as vitamin D, gut health and immunity are regularly at the top of the list and have remained so through the last 16 or so months. I think this shows that the public are still keen on immunity and wellness and looking for answers,” she advised.

“The other area I believe habits are changing are in the area of mental health. Not just for those suffering from conditions, but those consumers wanting to maintain a healthy mental balance. One change we may see is that consumers are not embarrassed to ask for supplements and advice for mental wellness. Hopefully, consumers will return to browsing again especially if they see that a store actively keeps everything clean, provides hand sanitiser and supports those that still feel the need to distance or wear a face covering.”

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