Coronavirus has thrown a spanner in the works for all retailers, but it hasn’t scuppered Holland & Barrett’s plans to have a sustainability-led redesign of its Chelmsford store that’s also fit for the future. We paid a virtual visit to see how it’s working

The bright, slick store stands out on Chelmsford’s hectic high street, the wooden-inspired signage reflecting the modern vibe the retailer is pushing.

CEO Tony Buffin beams with pride as he leads The Grocer around, reflecting how eager he is to see customers engage with it at this challenging time.

Down to the plants scattered around the shop, the new look ties in with what Buffin says the health product retailer is striving to achieve across its estate: taking care of customers, the environment and staff. It’s also designed to be a community wellness hub, stocking over 4,000 lines including 250 new products and additional services.

One of these is the high street’s first epigenetics testing, which analyses saliva samples to provide genetic dispositions to various health issues, alongside complimentary private video or face-to-face consultations with qualified nutritionists and personal trainers.

Despite assumptions Covid-19 may have thrown out refit plans, Buffin, who joined the business last May, confidently says the crisis has only pushed its aspirations forward.

“Coronavirus hasn’t slowed us down, but we have ensured we have plenty of safety measures,” he says. “The store needed to be the best representation possible of us being a sustainable business and make customers feel safe.”

It’s also striving to be digital-heavy. For starters, it’s scrapped point of sale signs in the windows and replaced them with slick digital screens. These display its key promotions, including its Penny Sale offer, whereby customers can purchase selected items, one at full price and the other for a penny.

The retailer’s regular store format also features low, suspended ceilings, but this fresh new look boasts wooden ceiling panels giving the illusion of more height and making it appear even larger than its 2,000 sq ft size.

The shop floor is entirely made from recycled or recyclable material, down to the wood incorporated into its shelving, ceiling, flooring and behind the checkouts. It’s also used LED lighting and installed energy efficient chillers and freezers, all with a goal of cutting carbon emissions by 32%.

“Sustainability has been at the heart of Holland & Barrett for a long time,” says Buffin.

That’s clear, not only through this refit, but the steps it’s taken over the years. It scrapped plastic bags in 2009, followed by wet wipes last September, and is working to reduce plastic packaging.

Buffin also revealed its long-term goal of stopping use of plastic altogether. He says doing so is the “next big thing” for Holland & Barrett, starting with discontinuing the sale of plastic bottles, for which it is currently looking at alternative materials.

“I’m not sure we’ll be able to become completely plastic-free, but that is our longer-term ambition,” he says, adding that it’s encouraging its suppliers to follow suit.

As well as preserving the environment, the retailer is focusing on, now more than ever, boosting customers’ wellbeing and safety. The store has all the Covid-preventing measures we’ve come to expect, including hand sanitiser, digital temperature checkers, navigational signage and Perspex screens at checkouts.

But entwining environmental consciousness and customer safety is tricky, especially when it comes to the store’s zero-waste refill station, as such features are arguably a hotbed for germs.

Customers are encouraged to use hand sanitiser before and after using the area, and can bring their own container to fill up with the nuts, seeds and dried fruits available, or use a paper bag provided. And gone are the handled scoops – this healthy pick & mix station requires the push of one button to release each item.

“We want to make sure our teams and customers are looked after, especially right now,” says Buffin. “Their feedback about how safe they feel to be in our shops has so far been very positive.”

As the onslaught of coronavirus is changing customer habits too, Holland & Barrett is pushing omnichannel shopping. It has introduced its online bespoke vitamin subscription service, Healthbox, in store for the first time, testing a preselected format in Chelmsford to assist customers with common health and wellbeing issues.

Customers also have the option to pick up orders with its contactless locker click & collect service to minimise physical interaction between shoppers and staff.

As for product-specific questions, these can be answered while maintaining social distancing by customers scanning QR codes placed below each SKU to get more information.

It’s clear the Chelmsford store is a showcase for Holland & Barrett’s aspirations, with technology and sustainability at its core. Everything being tested in the branch could be rolled out across its estate, depending on customer feedback.

“Our aim in Chelmsford is to listen even more carefully to our customers and understand what works for them so we can support them to be healthier when it is now more important than ever,” says Buffin.