Meeting the growing demand for consumer-conscious products, Wellness Warehouse is taking exciting new strides across South Africa’s health retail sector
Writer: Jonathan Dyble | Project Manager: Callam Waller
A universal trend that has been gaining increasing traction year after year, health and wellness is now an internationalised industry worth $4.2 trillion.
Combining the accumulative global values of fitness, nutrition, preventative medicine and personal care products, amongst others, this sum equates to 5.3 percent of global economic output.
Yet, despite these already astronomical numbers, it seems that this is only just the beginning for an industry that is currently growing almost twice as fast as global GDP, according to non-profit Global Wellness Institute.
Mental wellness, consumer consciousness and environmental sustainability have become defining trends of 2018 and 2019, while many new shoots continue to sprout across the sector year after year as people become more aware of the dos and don’ts associated with modern-day consumerism.
“It’s an industry that’s really caught the imagination,” states Simon Alston.
“People are recognising that their general wellbeing and overall health is very much linked to what they’re eating and the supplements they’re taking. This may sound like an obvious statement today, but funnily enough it hasn’t always been this way. Consumers are waking up to the importance of preventative health, which tends to start with what you eat.”
Now the Chief Executive Officer of Wellness Warehouse, a South African retailer that has quickly risen to pre-eminence as a champion of the wellness sphere following its inception in 2007, Alston himself remains a relative newcomer to the trade.
In fact, he spent much of his career in the corporate finance and private equity space, both in London and South Africa. But the opportunity to get involved in what was quickly becoming a thriving and meaningful line of work was too good to turn down.
“It was in 2015 that I gained a real appreciation for the health and wellness space, when we invested in a health food and supplement manufacturer,” he reveals. “I quickly realised what was happening – the industry was moving firmly into the mainstream, with huge room for growth. This also coincided with my growing personal interest in the space. Although I have always valued being physically active, starting a family changed my perspective on health in a fundamental way.”
A year later, Alston was introduced to Wellness Warehouse during a private equity investment into the business, coming on board as a shareholder representative and Non-Executive Director thereafter. And it was this role that allowed him to really gain an understanding of the company’s inner workings and true potential.
“The two years during which I worked with the team in that capacity really enabled me to appreciate what was being done at the business,” he affirms. “It’s a company characterised by huge amounts of passion, care and innovation.
“If you look at the products we’re encountering – from supplements to plant-based alternatives – everything’s happening at a very rapid pace.
As the recent Beyond Meat IPO in the US demonstrates, it’s not just the technology sector that is moving at speed and attracting investor interest.”
Indeed, Wellness Warehouse’s own rise personifies this tempo. In little over a decade, the retailer has successfully established a footprint spanning 28 (soon to be 31) stores across South Africa, offering a similarly expansive product offering.
From herbal and homoeopathic remedies to Ayurvedic and supplement solutions, Wellness Warehouse merchandises an array of complementary therapeutic and preventative health, food and fitness products, as well as natural body care products and eco-conscious home cleaning supplies – establishing an unrivalled portfolio in the South African market.
“I think the reason that the business model created by founders Sean and Carlos Gomes was so well received early on was because it was always values-driven, even if it was ahead of its time,” explains the CEO. “Sean is a medical doctor and Carlos an experienced retailer, and together they recognised that the concept of living life well requires a holistic and sustainable approach to wellness. In many ways, Wellness Warehouse operates at the intersection between personal health and planetary health.
“Preventative health and happy living will almost always be inextricably linked to awareness about the impact that our lives are having on the planet. Having a purpose driven by these two elements was a core differentiator of the business back then, and is possibly even more so now.”
The subject of differentiators also leads Alston to quickly point to the company’s staff, a team that truly champions Wellness Warehouse’s goal of providing not just an unmatched retail service, but also advice and information to help their customers live life well.
“It’s a major part of our value proposition,” he continues. “We have trained wellness consultants in store, for example – in some cases people with 10 to 15 years of experience in niche health subjects, and a range of different qualifications between them. They are our representatives who engage with customers every day.”
These specialists are supported by a number of retail assistants – individuals that the organisation also invests in heavily via its in-house Wellness Training Academy. Blended learning modules are offered with the aim of improving knowledge, ensuring new members of the team quickly become well versed in their fields of speciality and capable of ensuring an unsurpassed customer experience.
“The Wellness Training Academy has been a major focus of our investment strategy, particularly in the last 18 months,” states Alston.
“Our customers do their research and often, understandably, aren’t willing to compromise. They’re looking .for clear health benefits and environmentally-friendly products, so efficacy has to be evinced – by the products themselves, but also by our team members.”
Unlike other retail sectors, health and wellness is a high engagement segment, something that is widely understood by the SA-based enterprise.
Healthy Happenings is a prime example of how Wellness Warehouse is working to elevate consumer awareness around health and wellbeing. A series of in-store events held across the country, it offers advice and insight from experts from a range of relevant fields.
“We’ve seen a great uptake with these meetups,” Alston reveals, “and we’re very excited about the feedback we’re receiving. We love engaging with our customers and the industry – it’s very much a two-way, win-win relationship.”
The business is also driving its customer loyalty programme forward, trialling a store-within-a-store concept centred around a plant-based lifestyle, and expanding its ecommerce presence in a gradual yet coherent manner. These initiatives are further helping it to stand out from the crowd in what is becoming an increasingly competitive retail environment.
“We’re not alone in navigating these seas,” Alston states. “We have fantastic relationships with a range of partners and suppliers, both locally and internationally, who are quick to react to global trends. We’ve spent the past 10 years working closely with them, guiding them as to what our customers are looking for. They also have a great understanding of what we’ll tolerate in terms of ingredients and practices, and uphold Wellness Warehouse’s own values.
“Our growth cycles have been very closely linked to many of these businesses, where they’ve supported us, and we’ve supported them. As a retail business, logistics and supply chain is everything, so we recognise how crucial it is to invest in the right kinds of relationships. Our suppliers are critical to our success.”
Looking at the here and now, this success is propelling a growth phase for Wellness Warehouse.
Set to expand its presence into Durban for the first time in October 2019, the company is well on its way to consolidating a national footprint. Yet, much like the forecast trajectory of the industry itself, Alston is optimistic that this is just the beginning of a new, even more prosperous era for the business.
“We’ll reach the 30-store milestone by the year’s end, but in the longer term we see ourselves potentially doubling this,” he states. “In support of this, supply chain development and own-brand development will be two key focus areas for us moving forward.”
“These ambitions aren’t unrealistic either. We’re not naïve to the fact that it’s a tough retail environment for many brick-and-mortar retailers right now. Without a doubt, retail is changing, but the way we rationalise it is by saying that businesses that are relevant will succeed. And, honestly, we believe that with the growth we’re seeing and the feedback we’re getting from our customers, what we’re offering is relevant.
“We’re proud to be working at a much higher level of customer engagement than others – there’s certainly a role in this industry for independent retailers like ourselves.”