Big Interview: Hilary Leam, Group Innovation & Beauty Director, Holland & Barrett

Holland & Barrett's group innovation & beauty director Hilary Leam tells Retail Gazette about the retailer's sustainable initiatives and her role in giving customers confidence to make decisions in purchasing products.

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Holland & Barrett's beauty director Hilary Leam talks to Retail Gazette

Holland & Barrett’s beauty arm is a category that’s been growing for some time now, and its group innovation and beauty director knows exactly what it takes to tackle today’s environmental issues.

Hilary Leam’s knowledge of the sector can be traced back to 1993, when began her career at beauty chain Alliance Boots.

“I was there for 18 years – fantastic education, a brilliant company to learn and develop in,” she recalled.

“I had a number of roles, so probably the biggest role I did there was when I was the head of No.7 for five years.”

Leam prides herself on being a part of a team that helped relaunch No.7 in over 1400 stores in 2005.

“I’ve worked in this industry for a long time. It is hard”

“It was a two-and-a-half year project in the making with some really inspiring people and it was really transformational – and blooming hard work,” she said.

Leam left the pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer in 2011, around the time it merged with Boots in the UK and Walgreens in the US to become Walgreens Boots Alliance. Despite this, she said her “passion has always been in this sector”.

“If I could choose a retailer to work with, it’d be those that specialise in health and wellness because I genuinely find the sector fascinating,” she said.

“I’ve worked in this industry for a long time. It is hard.”

Leam’s not wrong about her passion, and despite a cutthroat industry, she moved on to healthcare products and consumer goods manufacturer PZ Cussons in 2011, where she was marketing director for eight months.

After that, she moved on to work for Big 4 grocer Morrisons where she ran their health & business division as marketing director until 2015.

“I then found myself at the lovely Holland & Barrett after taking a small break,” she laughed.


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In 2017, Leam began her role at Holland & Barrett, where she served as interim trading director before being promoted to group trading director.

In August of this year, she took the role of group innovation and beauty director.

Leam joined the health and wellbeing retailer because she wanted to help customers seek the self-care products they needed.

“I want people to be able to buy those products with confidence. I think it’s a really difficult world,” she explained.

“Health and wellness businesses are difficult for customers in terms of seeking advice. I want them to feel that they can rely on us.

“There’s lots of areas that are under immense pressure that I really would like to think we can democratise access to that self-care across our health portfolio.

“We can offer great alternatives for those customers who may be vegan or vegetarian. They know that they can get the best range of supplements to help them.

“There’s things I’ve taken that have really made a difference to me, and I’d like to get the word out.

“Things like turmeric, I’m getting to that age where you get rickety joints and I can tell the difference when I don’t take it and I’ve not got friends and family saying the same thing.

“To me it’s about how we provide access and information that’s really helpful.”

Holland & Barrett H&B Hilary Leam beauty director
Holland & Barrett became the first UK retailer to ban both plastic bags and microplastics back in 2009

With the shift towards sustainability becoming more apparent, Holland & Barrett executed sustainable methods by introducing eco-friendly alternatives – many of which were done under Leam’s leadership.

Its sustainable initiatives began back in 2009 when it became the first retailer in the UK to ban plastic bags as part of its environmental strategy Plan-It-Green to reduce waste.

In May this year, Holland & Barrett announced that they would no longer buy, sell or produce wet wipes by the end of September as part of its “Clean and Conscious” pledge.

“Holland & Barrett has a track record of making first moves in certain environmental issues. I think this is just a natural territory for us to stand,” Leam told Retail Gazette.

“Consumers possibly didn’t even realise at the time that wet wipes are the same kind of waste as plastic.

“I certainly didn’t – I mean over the years I’ve used them, I think there’s lots of things that have made customers much more conscious and our role is to help support them in making decisions.

“As a business, it felt like a very natural move for us and what we wanted to do was something that we could definitely deliver on.”

Leam added that the retailer had a “very active” customer services team.

“Direct customer feedback is helpful and we understand what they’re telling us – our store colleagues in particular, they are the face of Holland & Barrett,” she said.

“They help us identify any issues, any opportunities, any trends, and they obviously talk to customers directly as well.

“We are good with our customer base, but we can always do more.”

In terms of trends, Leam said she has noticed that there’s been a drive in immunity products during this time of year.

“Coming into autumn, we see trends with all the kids going back to school and the natural influx of colds and sniffles.

“We focus on wellness coming into January as people start to think about recovering from the overindulgence of Christmas, and people start to think about supplementation, and looking to control their appetite.

“One of the differences for Holland & Barrett is that we believe January is a very prime time for us, it’s when consumers are in that moment of reflection and they’re thinking about what they might want to change about their lifestyle.

“I think we have to prepare for all the eventualities – which is what we’re doing”

“And then obviously coming into summer it’s a slightly different territory as everyone feels a bit better about life because of the sunshine – we try to make sure we have some products for that.

“We’re also still seeing trends like CDB beauty.”

Leam said Holland & Barrett was still focusing on ways to become more innovative, although she said she was “excited” about its “very successful clean beauty advent calendar”.

However, as the UK approaches the Brexit deadline, Leam told Retail Gazette that like many other retailers, Holland & Barrett was preparing.

“We don’t quite know what we’re preparing for, so we’re probably over-preparing to make sure that we are fully covered,” she said.

“Our focus will be on ensuring that we continue to provide products consistently throughout any transition period.

“I think we have to prepare for all the eventualities – which is what we’re doing.”

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