Raw talent

As organic products take root in the high street, Clare Dowdy talks to the visionary who introduced the organic experience to the UK market

Renée Elliott, an ambitious American in her mid-thirties sporting a pearl necklace and earrings to match, has created one of the UK’s most talked about brands in less than five years. Rita Clifton at Interbrand Newell and Sorrell has predicted that Planet Organic, along with Gap and Amazon.com, will be one of the world’s top brands in 2025.

Elliott had barely any experience of retailing before planning the first store, only a determination to work for herself outside of a conventional business. What she didn’t know, she went on a course to learn: leadership skills and how to start your own business, to be precise.

Now, Planet Organic has the highest profile and the most bullish expansion plans of its peers. But, more importantly, it is the leader in a sector bursting with expectations of growth. Shoppers are crying out for organic or natural alternatives to everything, from milk to pet food. It’s still a small sector: in 1999 research specialist Mintel estimated the organic food and drink market to be worth £550m, only 1 per cent of the total UK market, but the value of the sector has increased fourfold in the past five years.

This niche has found a champion in Elliott, who is on the board of the Soil Association. “I consider us the pioneers,” she says of Planet Organic. And it’s not just a job to Elliott. “This is my life really,” she says. The first store, which opened in 1995 on London’s Westbourne Grove, now has sales of £4m per annum, and annual sales of £2m are predicted for the second London store, which opened last month on Torrington Place, off Tottenham Court Road. “I expect more customers, but a lower spend [here],” says Elliott, who won’t reveal what the average Planet Organic customer spends.

At the 381 sq.m Torrington Place site, the new identity, packaging, graphics and interiors, all by Pocknell Studio, make their debut.

But expansion has not been smooth. After her business partner left last year, Elliot had to bring in three new private investors, all of whom are non-executive directors, and restructure the company, appointing two additional directors. At this point rebranding, work being carried out by Williams Murray Hamm was cancelled. “Now it feels like the beginning again,” says Elliott, who is still the majority shareholder.

The Torrington Place store design has moved on considerably from Westbourne Grove, which by Elliott’s own admittance is beginning to look tired. The new store is fresh and inviting, modern without being stark. It features exposed galvanised steel air conditioning, galvanised steel shelving, exposed brick and bold, clean graphics. There is a takeaway area with seating at a bar, to cater for the high numbers of office workers and students in the area. This is quite a step away from Westbourne Grove, which has more in common with other healthfood stores in appearance, but, as Elliott points out, in 1995 even that store looked radical.

Planet Organic allows the shopper to take a holistic approach. The store has areas dedicated to petfood, related books and babyfood – one of the fastest growing sectors. There are more than 200 organic wines, spirits, and a health and bodycare section with skin products and makeup. While Elliott is vegetarian, she believes in offering an organic alternative for everything, hence the meat counter. Westbourne Grove has six full-time butchers, and pre-packed meat is also available. And quality is paramount. These types of products are still more expensive, so they have to be good. “We have worked so hard to get good tasting, well-made food,” she says.

Elliott preaches the mantra of shopping as theatre. So she has introduced the massage service, Relax, which takes place in the shop window, and the community noticeboard. She is also responsible for the training of staff, who are on hand to offer advice. Some of the same cues have been picked up by the other US imports, such as coffee and nail bars.

The success of the Planet Organic brand is the result of research and Elliott’s obvious empathy with the product. Having no retail background, she returned to the US to do her research, and while the concept is taken from the US retail model, it had to be adapted for the more sophisticated UK shopper. “UK supermarkets are cleaner and brighter, with better merchandise.

“The staff and industry as a whole is slicker here,” she says, citing Waitrose, while, in comparison, “US supermarkets are messy and dirty.”

However, having looked at US stores like Bread & Circus, Elliott still wanted to push the concept onward. “In the US, natural supermarkets are more upmarket (than in the UK), but they are still rustic. The first UK healthfood stores tended to be very small and cluttered, with lots of wood. Although they were stocking premium [products], it wasn’t sold in that setting,” she says. Planet Organic’s approach, however, is quite different. “We think it’s not about the past but about the future,” which has contributed to its reputation as a trendy brand. It is all a far cry from the worthy image that outlets such as Cranks are still trying to shake off.

It is the focus on wellness, shopping as an experience and the huge product range that allows Elliott to welcome the competition from traditional supermarkets. They are all upping their organic quotas in one way or another. Waitrose is promising 1000 organic lines by the end of the year; Sainsbury’s is creating a dedicated wellness section. “The supermarkets are good for us because some of our brands are not so well known to shoppers. If supermarkets stock them, it gives them recognition. Supermarkets are tantalising shoppers, who will come to us if they want a bigger range. Planet Organic stocks 8000 lines,” says Elliott.

And as for direct competition from rival organic supermarket chains, Elliott is confident of Planet Organic’s lead. “We knew competition would come,” she says. Greenways and Fresh and Wild have both announced expansion plans for London, while the latest player on the high street is As Nature Intended. “They are all following a similar look,” she says. And anyway, Elliott admits that “my goal was to make organic mainstream and that’s an enormous task.” So help from other entrants is welcomed.

Planet Organic has always been one step ahead. Elliott credits the Westbourne Grove store with pioneering the juice bar concept in the UK, and for introducing wheat grass into UK retailing. The Torrington Place store is pioneering another experimental concept: it has a massage service in the shop window. Part of the store’s innovation comes through customer feedback. So pre-packed fruit and vegetables are being introduced, for cash-rich, time-poor shoppers for whom convenience is a priority.

The next big push is own-label. At the moment it only appears on commodities, but she expects own label to ultimately account for 15-20 per cent of the store’s lines. She will not be drawn on long-term plans for own-label, but selling it into other retailers and stretching the brand must be under consideration.

In the meantime, further sites are being sourced and at some point the design of the original store will be revisited. “I would love to open four [stores] next year,” says Elliott, depending on the availability of property. These will be in London, as taking an organic supermarket nationwide leads to complications with maintaining consistency in the supply chain. But Elliott can envisage perhaps 35 stores in the capital. “I’m in this for the long haul,” she says.

Elliott took her original store ideas from the US, but was on a tight budget for the Westbourne Grove store in 1995. With new backers on board, the Torrington Place site is clearly the next generation in terms of design. Identity, graphics, interiors and packaging for Torrington Place are by Pocknell Studio. Elliott brought in the group for the whole store, as she wanted a coherent look.

Founder David Pocknell is no stranger to retail concepts imported from the US. His consultancy worked on the interiors for Seattle Coffee Company (bought by Starbucks) and identity and interiors for the Oi! Bagel chain. Pocknell describes the marque as honest and straightforward. ‘It’s mid-Atlantic,’ he says. ‘We tried to move away from the conventional hand-scripted organic signature.’ Elliott adds: ‘The logo is stronger, but not too serious. It’s not about brown rice and deprivation, we have a reputation for being trendy.’

The former Mothercare site was an awkward space, says Pocknell. The premise for the interiors was an old fashioned grocers that might have existed on the high street 20 years ago, only this one happens to be organic. This is reflected in the use of old fashioned materials such as wood and galvanised steel, that have been used in a modern way. Elliott says of the steel shelving: ‘We chose something very simple and clean, where the product is the hero.’ The ceilings are exposed, with galvanised steel air conditioning ducting. Spotlights highlight the ends of gondolas. ‘It is quite raw,’ says Elliott, ‘but it has been warmed up with a beech floor, marble counters and wicker baskets for fruit and bread.’ A brick wall has been left exposed behind the health and bodycare section.

Large reportage-style photographs decorate some of the walls. They were shot by Colin Turner using infrared and feature organic farms in Herefordshire which supply the stores. The plan is to add to this library and use the images on the own-label packaging.

Pocknell is currently working on more own-label designs, heavily branded as Planet Organic with engravings of vegetables. The consultancy is also creating more signage and message boards with information on issues such as biodynamics. ‘It’s about communicating,’ says Elliott. Pocknell Studio will design the next store.

The sector

  • As Nature Intended opened its first store, in Chiswick, west London, on 1 June.
  • Greenways Natural Food Stores plans ten London stores by 2002.
  • Fresh and Wild, formerly Freshlands and Wild Oats plans up to 20 stores over the next five years

    Supermarkets

  • Waitrose is planning 1000 organic lines by the end of the year.
  • Sainsbury’s is trialing wellness sections, the first of which opened in its London Colney store.

    Renée Elliott

  • 1982-86 Studied English at University of Massachusetts.
  • 1986 Came to the UK and worked as a journalist on Wine Magazine, eventually becoming a wine taster.
  • 1991 Returned to US to attend a leadership course with her husband.
  • 1992-94 Returned to UK and managed Westbourne Grove outlet of the then healthfood chain Wild Oats.
  • Feb 1994 Returned to US to carry out more research on natural food retailing. Took a course on how to start your own business.
  • Oct 1994 Started work on Planet Organic full time.
  • 1995 Opened Westbourne Grove outlet.
  • 2000 Opened Torrington Place outlet. Treasurer of London Organic Food Forum. On the board of the Soil Association.
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