Differentiated customer experiences often begin with an enthusiastic and well-informed workforce. Holland & Barrett understand this retail fundamental and that has helped the brand catapult to 3rd place overall in our rankings of Customer Experience Excellence (CEE). With a clear focus on engaging employees in the customer experience, H&B shows how brands can excel, even in times of crisis.

A warm welcome and personal advice

"At Holland & Barrett, we want to be known for offering products that support natural health and wellbeing. We see growing awareness and interest in personal health and wellbeing. And that is translating into increased customer demand.

Customers visiting our stores should feel welcome. But they should also be able to find products that meet their needs and their lifestyles. We understand that selecting a product based solely on the packaging information can be difficult for customers. So – from the start – we put a strong emphasis on staff training.

Our colleagues are not just genuine believers and users themselves; they have also been trained to help our customers find the products and information they need. Our customers trust us to give informed, personalised advice. We need to work hard to earn and keep that trust.

Every new employee starts in our 'Healthy Start' program – an in-house training plan designed to deliver in-depth (and rather interesting) product knowledge. Client-facing employees also participate in our 'Natural Service & Sales' training program that helps employees engage customers in effective and in-depth conversations about the customer's unique needs. Our training focuses on engaging and informing customers."

Passionate about the brand

"While our employees' product knowledge and experience is very important, what makes our service really stand out is the passion employees demonstrate for the brand. Every single member of our team wants to go the extra mile for customers; our desire to help customers and create strong relationships is simply part of our DNA.

It goes without saying that our employees' passion is critical to delivering that perfect customer experience. It is up to us to help employees use their passion to improve customer service and experience. But, at a point, it is also up to them."

Stepping up during crisis

"The onset of COVID-19 has clearly been disruptive. From the outset, we made it clear we wanted to keep as many stores open as possible. And while, in Belgium, we needed to shut down stores due to government measures, we were proud that all of our stores in The Netherlands remained open during the crisis.

While footfall fell in the initial days of the pandemic, those who did visit the stores were 'on a mission' and tended to know exactly what they needed. As a result, conversion rates increased, as did the number of items purchased per customer.   

To ensure visitors remained confident coming to our stores, we always tried to stay one step ahead of national health and safety guidance. We were very quick to deploy Plexiglas screens and disinfectants into our stores, taking every effort to ensure everyone – customers and employees – felt safe. We also worked hard to communicate with our colleagues as effectively as possible. For instance, we launched an app that would allow us to keep in close contact with employees.

We also put significant effort into ensuring our in-store colleagues know how much they are appreciated. We recognise these have been difficult times for everybody. And we want them to know we value their great work."

Online and offline queuing

"The COVID-19 pandemic saw our online sales increase rapidly. It also came with some challenges. For example, we strived to keep our promises on online delivery times. But that required us to quickly scale up activities in areas like distribution. It also required us to be more proactive in our communication with customers and front-office employees.

During the initial phases of the crisis, we tried to talk to every customer service employee daily to make sure everything was going to plan and to find ways to better support them. With customer needs and concerns rapidly evolving, our employees were facing a number of new questions from customers. And while this created challenges sometimes, we benefited from having our customer service function in-house and staffed largely by former shop employees with significant product knowledge.

We also experienced some queuing in our offline stores. The sudden increase in demand for products like Vitamin C was overwhelming. So, too, were some of the unexpected peaks in demand catalysed by COVID-19-related health advice being publicly circulated."

Rebranding for the future

"Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the midst of our rebranding strategy. Last year, we launched the 'Uit de tuinen van H&B' campaign, aimed at enhancing brand awareness and telling our story. And we believe these efforts are already paying off, particularly in these times of crisis. Customers are more aware of our existence and they know how to find us; our spontaneous brand awareness increased with 115 percent over last year.

At the same time, we continue to drive our rebranding efforts and share our story through social media. Indeed, we are actively engaging with our customers through live Q&A sessions on Instagram, for example. And we are happy to report that customers are receiving this enthusiastically. We will continue to explore other options (such as podcasts) in the near future.

More is yet to come. We are opening new stores based on our updated formula and reopening redesigned stores. We've opened 8 so far this year and more are in development. In the coming year, you will see more aspects of our rebranding strategy, including updated logos, packaging and products – offering both fresh looks and refined product formulas. We believe this will be an incredibly important aspect of our business over the coming year."

Towards an even better experience

"Given the global health, social and business environment, we believe H&B is strongly positioned. In fact, we continue to exceed our targets – physical store sales may have decreased slightly, but online sales went up significantly. And, as soon as the most severe of the government measures were lifted, physical store performance also quickly recovered.

It is great to see our strengthened positioning and progress reflected in our results across all pillars in this year's CEE research. We are delighted, and perhaps even slightly surprised, with our excellent performance in the overall brand ranking

That being said, we also hope to continue to enhance the customer experience and grow our online market. Before COVID-19, around 13 percent of sales were through our online channel. That number quickly rose to 42 percent during the outbreak of the crisis, and is now at 20 percent. We believe online sales will at a minimum stabilise at this level, but there is room to grow it further.

One challenge with the online store is that it is difficult for front-line colleagues to share their knowledge and product expertise in the same way they can in the store. We currently offer customers our Health Magazine in an effort to help them find valuable information. We are also running a customer analytics program that tracks customer behaviour to ensure customers are getting personalised newsletters that meet their individual needs. Still, there is much room for improvement in our personalisation and omni-channel approach.

All in all, we are very happy with our current market position. But we are also very aware of the competition, particularly from online providers. That is why we are doing our utmost – each and every day – to come up with the best possible customer experiences. In the end, that is what it is all about."

Lies Goezinne

Commercial Director (CCO)