Healthy times for Holland and Barrett head of non-food, Emma Cockerill

Europe's leading health-food chain are on an ambitious expansion drive.

It was not so long ago that Emma Cockerill was buying herbal teas, liquorice and popcorn seeds at her local Holland & Barrett store in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, where she was a regular customer. Today she is head of non-food for the famous health-food chain, Europe’s leading retailer of vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements.
Holland & Barrett is in the midst of an aggressive expansion plan — 50 new stores have opened in the past 24 months — and business is growing despite the tough conditions on the high-street.

Mrs Cockerill, 32, says health-consciousness has boosted demand for health products and supplementary foods. “There isn’t a price you can put on your and your family’s health. In fact, when times are tough there is a feeling that you can’t afford to be ill. You must be at your best in all aspects of your life to cope with what could be thrown at you, and that includes your personal health.

“When you look at the Irish market, they have got one of the most developed and thriving health food industries in Europe, all because the population is investing in self-prescription rather than having to pay a high price every time they want to visit their GP.
“With the wealth of knowledge now available online, it is far easier for people to research a condition or illness and find ways to proactively manage their health naturally.”

The ageing population and desire to remain healthy are proving to be important factors in driving the nutritional supplements market. Global sales for health and wellness products are expected to exceed $772 billion by 2015, according to the Euromonitor International 2011 report compiled by the National Food Institute.

There are over 700 UK Holland & Barrett stores, attracting 800,000 customers a week, and the brand is expanding in “a big way” with the launch of in-store “Good Food To Go” counters selling hot and cold healthy snacks and drinks, a dedicated “natural beauty” section and a recently launched training academy.

There is also a strong emphasis on the growing sports nutrition industry. UK sales of sports nutrition products rose 14 per cent in 2010 to reach £200 million and are expected to reach £312 million by 2015 as consumers continue to pay attention to their health, with an increasing number of people engaging in sporting activities.
“Something we’ve worked hard on is the explosion of sports nutrition in the UK, particularly with products like Whey Protein — taking it from a product for die-hard muscle–builders and making it accessible for the masses.” Holland & Barrett’s Whey Protein is the store’s best-selling item with more than one million units sold in the past financial year. And with the impending Olympics, Mrs Cockerill acknowledges that this is something that will only increase. “The Olympics will bring greater focus on sports and fitness as a whole. We’re expanding our energy and endurances ranges in anticipation of customers getting the Olympic bug.”

Holland & Barrett, which is today owned by NBTY, was founded by Lancashire businessman Samuel Ryder — a golf enthusiast who gave his name to the Ryder Cup — in 1922. Called Heath & Heather, it sold herbs and seeds. It was renamed Holland & Barrett in 1970 and has expanded its range to include health-food, vitamins, minerals and beauty products. Today, best-selling products include cod liver oil, glucosamine, evening primrose oil and vitamin D. Mrs Cockerill is also seeing a “surprising” boom in natural beauty products. “We are seeing a new type of customer who sees through the marketing hype of the big brands and simply wants excellent quality products with no additives. Products like our Dr Organic range, Coconut Oil and Argan Oil have flown in the past 12 months, growing a category in which we are predicting will go from strength to strength.”
The chain is one of the few names that has increased its high-street presence over the past few years. How has it managed to stay ahead of the game? Promotions such as the Penny Sale, and loyalty scheme Rewards for Life have been particularly successful.

The brand’s e-commerce division has also been significant. “We know that 70 per cent of our customers go online to research products before purchase, so the information we provide has to be in-depth and meet their needs.
“If our website was a store it would have the highest turnover in the business. Essentially it’s our first shop front, and we’ve invested heavily in it.”
There, are of course, challenges, most notably the introduction of new legislation from the EU. Mrs Cockerill says: “It is something which the wider industry has been lobbying against for some time. It will, if passed, restrict the amount of products that can be sold in the UK. It’s counter-intuitive really, applying legislation which was designed for the pharmaceutical industry to natural products which have been used by millions of people for hundreds of years. From a retail point of view, it’s potentially very debilitating and could require thousands of products to either be reformulated or re-labelled.

“It will be a huge challenge for all health food retailers, and as the market becomes more developed, the need to find more innovative and functional products increases. We are always on the look-out for new and exciting health concepts which could be the next big thing, and I dedicate massive amounts of my time and resources to seeking new products from around the world.”

Based in Leicestershire — a stone’s throw from the company’s head offices in Nuneaton, Warwickshire — Mrs Cockerill joined Holland & Barrett in 2002 as a product manager, becoming head of non-food three years ago. She says she was destined for the retail industry, studying product development and management at De-Montfort University before landing her first part-time job with clothes store Pitlochry Knitwear, part of the Edinburgh Woollen Group, selling kilts and cardigans to the over-50s.

A member of Edgware Reform Synagogue in Middlesex, Mrs Cockerill acknowledges that there are not many Jewish people in the company — she is the only Jew in her team. “NBTY is not a Jewish firm, but you meet many people who are. I met one supplier recently for a brief meeting — when he next visited the office he brought me fishballs. It’s the small things that make you feel part of something bigger that remind you of the bigger picture, and seeing as there’s not many of us, I feel I owe it to my ancestors to keep with tradition.
“The faith for me is about having respect for the religion and it is becoming more important to me as I get older.” She adds: “I’m passionate about kosher products and lucky enough to be in a position where I can help manufacturers of kosher products bring them to a wider audience. Recently we listed an egg-free whitener which I know will be of great use to many Jewish cooks, and our vegetarian selection is vast to help give people choice in foods.”

Asked which retailers she admires she says: “This is a tricky question as I’m a fan of so many shops. I admire Marks and Spencer, not only because I am a regular shopper but I’m also a big fan of the food halls. Whistles is a good example of a brand that has carved itself an identity and whose online offering really reflects their stores. Finally, Hobbs clothing, for their excellent customer service and keeping my wardrobe well stocked. I have also been lucky enough to spend some time with the senior management team at Ann Summers. They are a specialist retailer like us that invests in their staff to help sell their products and keep their customers at the forefront of everything they do.”

    Last updated: 1:23pm, May 24 2012