Renee Elliot is the type of person who makes you want to run home and clear your food cupboards of anything remotely unhealthy. It's not only her evangelistic praise of organic and healthy food, or even her boundless energy that elicits this response, it's more that she positively radiates health from every pore.
It's as though she's been digitally enhanced and as such is a better advert for her three Planet Organic health food stores than any amount of PR. And PR is something that Renee knows about, having forsworn advertising as a marketing tool when she first set up the shop more than 10 years ago. She says she'd just read Anita Roddick's account of setting up The Body Shop, Body and Soul, in which Roddick recounts that she never had to advertise and relied on editorial for exposure. "I realised we would have to get editorial if we didn't advertise, and I thought we had a good story," she says.
When she opened the first store in London's Notting Hill in November 1995, she hired a PR agency to handle its publicity, however Londoners and the press didn't quite know what to make of it. Renee explains: "We thought that the press would come flooding in, but the concept was almost too new."
It wasn't until the BSE scare in February 1996 and the GM debate in the late 1990s that the press got excited and customers really took notice. About this time she became a favourite talking head on all things organic - she's not only founder of the first health food supermarket in the UK, but is also on the committee of the Soil Association and has advised the government on organic issues. And she says when it comes to generating press, having a healthy angle could be beneficial for any retailer wanting to get noticed: "Whether it's advertising or editorial, you can do stuff to educate people about food - people are interested."
The healthy message is one she cares passionately about and it's no surprise the company's mission statement includes the pledge 'to promote health in the community'. Leaflets on the food, the history of the store and nutrition are available for customers to pick up, a practice smaller stores could also use to their advantage.
The leaflets reveal just how pioneering Renee and her stores have been: Planet Organic was not only the first Soil Association Certified supermarket in the UK, it also offered the first organic and British meat counter; it had the first sustainable fish counter; was the first to sell fresh wheat grass juice; and the first organic retailer to actually publish books about organic food. It also offered the first organic delivery service by bicycle.
There are currently three Planet Organic stores in London with a fourth planned for next year, each between 4,000sq ft and 5,500sq ft. When she talks about the stores, Renee uses the word 'nimble' to emphasise how flexible they are and how quickly they can adapt to meet the needs of local customers. For instance, when it was realised customers at the Torrington Place store were mostly commuters, the store immediately got rid of the meat counter, recognising that customers wouldn't want to take lumps of steak on long tube and train journeys. In the Westbourne Grove store, health and bodycare is given a lot more space than at other stores. This store, she says, is busy in the mornings when mums come in after dropping older children at school - the store has mini trolleys for young children to help mum with the shopping; at Torrington Place lunchtimes are "heaving" and Renee is considering extending the food-to-go offer into the evening.
All three stores have strong food-to-go sections and two franchised kitchens operate at Torrington Place and Westbourne Grove. The Fulham store, however, has a Planet Organic team of chefs. All kitchens in the store are 'organic certified' and Renee sees food to go as an important part of the chain's future. The stores operate juice bars and, of course, sell organic cappucino, which customers can drink in the eating areas.
Of the 9,000 products on sale about 90% are organic and the chain has a strong ethical stance. The stores recycle and reuse at every opportunity, and support work with charities. Hydrogenated fats, GM foods and artificial ingredients are banned.
Renee says: "We are passionate about what we do here and have very high integrity - for instance, we had plastic containers in the juice bar and we agonised over using them. We couldn't find anything that was appropriate for liquid and affordable." They eventually tracked down containers made from reed pulp which fulfill all the criteria and are fully biodegradable.
Renee is keen for her passion to extend to her staff and the training each of the 130 staff undergoes reflects this: "If our team is knowledgeable about food and nutrition issues then they're having conversations about it with people in the community; it creates loyalty and educates consumers."
She says that she finds it depressing to walk into a supermarket where the staff know nothing about the store or the products, and care even less. "I meet all our staff and tell them the story of the stores. I walk in thinking that I've done this so many times and by the end of a couple of hours I'm so enthusiastic and inspired again."
Staff training also extends to security, which she says is as much of a problem at Planet Organic as anywhere else. "The staff need to know when and how to handle a situation because legally you have to know what to do to not mess it up."
She says that a call to security over the tannoy can often lead to a "dump and run", keeping the produce in store. She admits, though, that they have had to stop selling Planet Organic own label organic oils or any organic salmon as it is a target for thieves to sell on.
It's clear that although Renee has strong ethical beliefs she also has a good head for business. She came to the UK from America in 1986 straight out of university, where she had studied nutrition, and initially went into the wine trade for five years. The initial idea for the stores came from the US, where she had seen a similar concept.
Before opening Planet Organic she worked as manager of health food store Wild Oats. When it came to planning her own retail adventure, though, she says that she had no doubts about what she wanted to do: "We wanted to be big and wanted lots of stores."
Although her stores may be in affluent areas and provide a point of difference which customers seek out, Renee sees no reason why smaller convenience retailers can't make a profit out of selling healthy and organic food. "Organic has been growing at 11-12% a year. Some people may say, 'Well, that's only 12%', but no other food sector can match that."
She thinks the time is perfect for retailers to enter the field given that the relationship between health and food is now better understood by consumers. "All the talk now is about kids, food and schools, Jamie Oliver and Gillian McKeith. Food consciousness has really changed."
When looking at healthy and environmentally friendly products, she says that consumers have a 'cycle of adoption', with the focus firmly on themselves and their loved ones rather than the good of the planet. It starts with fruit and vegetables and goes on to dairy and meat: "Then they start thinking about what they're putting on their skin and it goes to bodycare, and then what they're cleaning their house with and if it's putting the family at risk. People are quite selfish; their worries are about themselves."
She points out that mothers weaning their babies are a major purchaser of organics and this may be a good place for smaller retailers to start if they are interested in selling organic food. Organic dairy also offers price parity and doesn't present any problems with certification - loose products such as organic fruit and vegetables require a store to be certified to sell them as they are not prepacked.
Sourcing, she says, is not the problem it used to be: "If someone walked into this store five years ago, they wouldn't have recognised a brand, but now they do. And they know that if you can get something in a mainstream supermarket then you can get the equivalent here, usually in a recognisable brand. And people don't price compare here."
Competition is something she knows about all too well. The pharmacy down the road from the Westbourne Grove store sells a lot of vitamins and there's a Sainsbury's and a big Tesco not far away - "but the stores don't touch us," she says.
At Torrington Place it's even worse with several large supermarkets around. "When Tesco closed for refurbishment I walked past the windows and every one said 'Organic coming soon', or 'Fresh coming soon' or whatever. But while it was closed our sales shot up and when it re-opened our sales went down, but not to what they originally were so Tesco lost customers to us, not the other way around."
She says a lot of the success is down to the chain's ability to give customers what they want. "We're a little more nimble, we're smaller and we can look at what our point of difference is and keep raising standards all the time. Competition keeps you on your toes; it's not comfortable but it's always good for you."
However, the competition can get a little too close and rivals make regular visits to check out what Planet Organic is doing: "It happens so much and is so obvious - a guy in a suit with a notebook. You'd think he could at least carry a basket."
She says she usually walks up and introduces herself, which tends to produce a flustered response. But even she was amazed at the cheek of a coachload of buyers who piled into the store. "There were 30 people walking round - I asked them where they were from and they said 'Sainsbury's'. I said: 'You could have called'."
The attention is flattering and testament to Planet Organic's high standards. Fruit and veg displays are hand-checked and sorted and if she sees customers carrying a rival organic store's carrier bag she'll go up and politely ask what they've bought there and then look at stocking it herself.
Yet Renee believes quality is something every retailer can achieve, however large or small: "People will come to you because you offer better service and have higher standards, and people will pay for something that's nicer."