The Greenlife Story .. as told by JAMIE SERMON
Greenlife opened in July 1990 in a tiny 200 ft² shop on Totnes Fore Street. Initially it was a would-be Body Shop project, the aim being to create a “green products” shop in every town. The main thrust was to encourage more 'green' shopping: recycled paper, fair trade items, organic clothing, and so forth.
After all, there were already two busy health food shops in Totnes and every other grocer in town, seeing the local trend, had already put in a shelf or two of rice cakes and soya milk.However by September 1990 the country had plunged, seemingly overnight, into recession. In the same month, a disastrous fire brought down an arch over the main street and left it covered in rubble. As the area outside our entrance remained virtually closed for the next few months, the fate of our fledgling shop seemed sealed.
Greenlife had already begun life twelve years earlier in 1978, in leafy Surrey. Mike, my husband, decided to start a wholefood co-operative in the basement of our old Victorian house, and although it didn't last even a year, it gave him a taste for 'the business'.
Eight years later, in 1986, we had become co-owners of a training centre in Devon where Mike converted a large walk-in larder into a shop. As more and more people attended courses, so the product range increased. Every day found Mike bagging up lentils and dried fruit whilst chatting to visiting customers about the virtues of various products. What a lot he managed to squeeze into (what must have been) the smallest shop in England! Everyone commented on it, particularly on its wonderful smell!
So here we were at the dawn of 1991, a very bleak January. Weeks went by when we could barely cover costs; we worked for a pittance and had to supplement our income in other ways. Each time our partner came into the shop, his face grew greyer as he feared inevitable ruin.We realised that many of our products were not at the top of people's shopping lists. If we were to survive we had to do some serious pruning and rethinking. One thing was for sure, even in hard times people still had to eat.
Over the next year or so, we were forced to change from providing eco-products to becoming more of a traditional health food store. That meant we were now competing more than ever with the two other Totnes health food shops, and we had to think carefully about what to concentrate on to make it work.
We did our best to focus on creating a good atmosphere, keeping our window as inviting and eye catching as possible, making customers feel welcome by being cheerful and helpful (however we felt!), attempting to meet everyone's needs no matter how difficult it might be to locate unusual items, learning as much as possible about our products, especially the supplements and remedies, tasting and using all our goods ourselves, and providing a first class service. Mike particularly excelled in making people feel special. Against all sound business practice, he gave discounts to friends, old and very new, as well as free lollies to their children. Having so little space in our tiny premises, every nook and cranny was packed and customers really enjoyed browsing round our Aladdin's cave.
Again, everyone commented on the wonderful smell. If nothing else, we somehow managed to create an attractive atmosphere for people. Sales climbed slowly and by 1993, we were running out of space and wondering what the next step might be.
I had been eyeing what seemed a gigantic empty double-fronted shop at the bottom of town. At almost 1800 ft² including an office, it seemed an impossible dream, yet somehow we believed it could happen.
For once the recession was in our favour; our accountant announcing that if we could eventually double our turnover, we could pay the bills. After intensive preparation, we moved into our new premises on a snowy Valentine's Day in 1994.
By the end of our first week we realised we would be all right. In spite of the snow, customers had found us and were trickling in. It was going to work.
Things kept growing over the years and in an attempt to increase our selling space, we took a bold step in 1998, and bought a unit on the Industrial Estate to receive and house our deliveries and provide much-needed extra space for administration and for our budding mail order business, Greenlife Direct.
However, within a few years we found that managing a shop from two premises was a cumbersome and expensive way of running a retail business and realised that eventually we must find a better alternative. But shops large enough for our needs were few and far between in Totnes, especially at the bottom end of town which is where we had established ourselves and where we preferred to stay. Ever on the lookout for a seemingly mythical solution, the years slipped by without further success in this direction. Meanwhile both shopping and working at Greenlife were not comfortable experiences, with the shop aisles increasingly impassable and staff struggling to work in a very cramped back office area. The need for bigger premises became more and more urgent.
Not wishing to abandon the bottom of town or move up the hill and step on the toes of our industry colleagues (an astonishing feat that we have all survived in such a small town when the industry in general was struggling elsewhere, and a testament to the wonderfully supportive and health-aware population of Totnes), we were at first reluctant to investigate a large shop that became available nearer the top. But we finally did and to our delight, found that it had an area at the back equal to the size of the retail space, a rabbit warren of offices, alcoves, corridors and store rooms, not to mention a large staff room, and joy of joys, three loos! There was even an access for delivery vans and three precious parking spaces. Suddenly here was something that could possibly meet our needs. After years of searching, we felt we had finally found premises that would give Greenlife the home it deserves. The fact that it was in the “wrong” part of town still worried us, but we knew we had to move and there was nowhere else. So exactly 16 years from its last move and almost 20 years from its birth, Greenlife reopened in Totnes Market Square on Feb 15 2010.
At the time of writing (May 2010), it is still early days, but we feel certain we have made the right move. It is wonderful to have wide aisles and space for all our customer and staff needs. Although some customers miss the relative cosiness of our old shop, most comments have been favourable and we’ve heard that other local traders have experienced more business as a result of the extra customers now coming to the top end of town.
We now have over 6000 lines with room to increase, with a mix of approximately 60% food to 40% supplements, remedies, toiletries, cosmetics, personal and household care items. We specialise in teas with an assortment of around 250 varieties. There is a large bakery section with local breads delivered daily, plus others from bakeries around the country. Our four freezers and seven fridges are bursting with the ever-increasing availability of chilled and frozen products.
We currently deal with around 57 local suppliers who provide us with everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, lunchtime snacks, pasties, sushi rolls, pies, crisps, raw chocolate, flapjacks and juices, plus eggs, milk, tofu, burgers and many other goodies.
We carry a very broad range of vitamins, minerals, homeopathic and herbal remedies as well as aromatherapy flower remedies. More and more, we are specialising in natural toiletries and cosmetics. Amongst our very committed staff members, we have a team of qualified and trained staff who can advise customers on the use of supplements, especially with the assistance of the Aisle 7 programme (also available on this site).
Greenlife attracts customers from far and wide but we owe much of our success to the fact that Totnes is such an unusual town, having a large population of therapists from every imaginable discipline, as well as parents and teachers from the local Steiner school plus many people who have chosen to live in this beautiful and still relatively unspoiled part of Britain. They tend to be very discerning and well informed on health matters, and are happy to pay a little extra for the privilege of eating organic fruit and vegetables. We also have many senior customers who benefit from our weekly pensioner discount day. On a typical day we see roughly 500 customers go through the shop, with people coming from a wide radius, some having been told "If anyone has it, Greenlife will!"
We often ask ourselves how we got here - it was almost accidental.
Ultimately, I think Greenlife has been successful in part because of our naïve belief that it was possible, by not allowing ourselves to be too influenced by any of the industry's 'doom and gloom' stories, and by building strong bridges of friendship and loyalty with both our broad spectrum of customers and our team of staff. In the end, it's been down to belief, commitment and dogged perseverance!