In charge of Holland & Barrett’s overall operations is Tony Buffin, who joined just 18 months ago. He has since attempted to digitise the retailer, even when the Covid-19 chaos forced many businesses to switch up their traditional ways.
Buffin joined the health retailer from Travis Perkins, where was chief finance director before being promoted to chief operating officer. At Holland & Barrett, he had big shoes to fill. Previous chief executive Peter Aldis had presided over 39 consecutive quarters of like-for-like growth at a time when the retailer was beginning its long-term strategic transformation into an multichannel brand.
That’s not to say Buffin isn’t a retail veteran himself. Besides Travis Perkins, he also spent time with Australian grocery giant Coles as chief financial officer and chief executive of the Loyalty Management Group, as well as financial controller at health and beauty giant Boots. He is also retaining his role of non-executive director at Dyson.
Reflecting on how he picked up grocery experience with Coles and health retail experience with Boots, Buffin believes his skills set was suitable to lead Holland & Barrett as chief executive. The opportunity first arose last year when he was approached and asked to “look at one or two things it would change within the business”. Buffin said it was an opportunity he couldn’t decline.
One of his latest achievements at Holland & Barrett is the renovated store in Chelmsford, Essex – a subject which Buffin was most “excited” to talk about.
“We needed to move the store proposition forward. We were a bit outdated and a bit dusty,” Buffin laughed.
“It was really important to offer a new modern shopping environment.”
In order to provide customers with that new, modern look and feel, Holland & Barrett changed its logo and stripped back the usual points of sale at its front windows, replacing them with digital screens. And in the age of coronavirus, the Chelmsford store also offers a foot-based hand sanitizer and temperature checker.
With Holland & Barrett stores not usually known for having large premises, Buffin said the company took the decision to extend the Chelmsford store by scrapping its warehouse. By being able to offer a larger-than-usual store, Buffin hopes more customers will visit since social distancing measures can be easily met.
“We’ve been able to extend the store by about 15 per cent. It gives people more space to browse,” he told Retail Gazette.
“We really don’t have a warehouse now because what we’ve done is put all the products onto the shop floor.
“We now place our own stock underneath the shelves, so that when we replenish, we can then move it straight to the shop floor. It’s more efficient for us.”
However, the possibility of being too overcrowded was no concern for Buffin, as the new store offers another 250 products than usual. He added that Holland & Barrett has had to switch product categories around as customers’ priorities have seemingly changed in recent months.
“We’ve brought our vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements to the front of store and part of part of the reason for that switch is that it is our core category,” Buffin reflected.
“We’ve also brought our immunity category right to the front of store as we saw customers purchasing huge amounts of immune boosting products through the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We brought our ‘clean and conscious’ beauty range to the front of store as we’ve noticed it’s really important at the moment in terms of being on trend and fashionable.”
Buffin added that the initiative came as a result of “listening to customers”.
“If our new store layout resonates with customers, then we’ll implement it across the rest of our store estate, but we want to gauge customer’s reactions to it first,” he said.
Buffin said customers usually come in to a Holland & Barrett store with “lots of questions”. One way to ensure contact is minimised during the ongoing pandemic is by providing shop floor staff with headsets – which means customers can only speak to one advisor.
“We’re carefully watching as to where people will go in the future to shop”
“On certain products, we’ve included tiny chips where you can scan your photo for them, and it will give you the features and benefits of the product,” he added.
In an effort to offer customers personalisation, the store sells diagnostic kits, which will tell customers whether they are deficient in any vitamins.
“We can help you manage your condition. We are trying to help customers understand what their problems are, not just solve an existing problem,” Buffin explained.
“We want to be playing a bigger role in people’s lives in terms of being healthier.
“A lot of our customers want advice about certain conditions and sometimes they want a more private environment to do that.
“That’s why we’ve set up a consultation room, where either customers can get advice from the team in store, or accept a video consultation.
“Once a problem has been found, customers can buy products in store there and then.”
Another initiative that Buffin had to modify due to the pandemic is Holland & Barrett’s refill station. Retailers such as the major grocers had shut down their refill stations in recent weeks due to fears that it could lead to the spread of coronavirus. But Holland & Barrett has been offering refills for the past decade and while it also shut down its stations, Buffin said the Chelmsford store offered a “different kind” of refill system.
“We’ve tried to make it more Covid-friendly, but also more efficient, and less wasteful,” he said.
“You can take your paper bag or use your own container to fill up with dried fruit, nuts or pulses.
“We used to allow customers to put a scoop in the pick and mix to fill up their bags, but we’ve stopped that entirely across the estate.
“Now we allow customers to just put their containers underneath, use hand sanitizer and then hold the lever to receive their pick and mix.”
Buffin told Retail Gazette that “keeping customers and colleagues safe during this period has been the biggest challenge”.
Holland Barrett came under pressure for keeping its stores open during lockdown, as it was classed an essential retailer, after staff demanded it close stores on safety grounds amid the pandemic.
An online petition was circulating in April, when the UK was at its peak with coronavirus, but Buffin said Holland & Barrett was an “essential” business because it sold products for people with dietary requirements.
One of the other challenges the retailer is facing is understanding how shopping will continue to evolve as the UK rides out the pandemic.
“We’re not seeing people back in big city enclosed shopping centres, but we’re certainly seeing people coming back to the high street,” Buffin said.
“We’re carefully watching as to where people will go in the future to shop and how we fulfil that demand.
“Listening to customers at the moment is really important.”