CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - SEN. Can Hutchison Whampoa make a go of its alternative therapy?

When the Hong Kong-based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa decides to enter a market, it doesn't do things by halves.

Hutchison is behind the phenomenally successful Orange brand and it paid about £4 billion for the licence to launch a third-generation mobile phone network. So the opening of the first store of a Chinese medicine-themed retail chain, called Sen, may not be as insignificant as it sounds.

The company may have struggled to launch its third-generation network, 3 (now expected in January), but it has got it together on the retail front, with Sen opening on London's South Molton street this month. Last week, it emerged that it is looking for an ad agency to support the launch.

Sen, which means "forest" in Chinese, aims to promote "the art and science of Chinese medicine to the western world", Bill Westwater, the general manager of Sen Medicine Company, explains.

It will offer a broad range of healthcare therapies and personal consultations by qualified practitioners, as well as each store housing a Liquid Health Bar.

According to the research company Datamonitor, the European market for herbal supplements and over-the-counter medicine sales was 8.1 billion euros (£5.2 billion) in 2000 - and the market has grown 3.4 per cent since 1996.

However, the figures for the UK market show that the pie is somewhat smaller for the players looking to cash in. In 2000, it was worth £230 million and has grown 4.8 per cent since 1996.

"There is a core of people interested in herbal medicine, it isn't yet spread across the general population, but they are loyal and if Sen can grab them it could be successful," Andrew Russell, a consumer insight analyst at Datamonitor, says.

According to Richard Hyman, the chairman at the retail consultancy Verdict Research, Sen will have its work cut out taking on the well-established incumbents that have found the market a tough one to crack. He says: "Boots is clearly the key competitor. If you look at what it has been saying in the recent past it has found the market difficult because of the education that needs to be done. Most people are clear it will be a big market in the future but timing is everything. Pioneering requires deep pockets."

But Westwater disagrees: "We don't think Chinese medicine has ever been presented to consumers in the way we plan to do it. We don't see any competitors. It is a completely unique proposition and it's not about taking market share from other players, it is about growing the Chinese medicine pie."

He admits it is a small market, part of a market that Hyman says will be tough for all players in the short term. "The market is not going to reach critical mass quickly enough. I don't think there is first mover advantage in this market, it is a high-risk business area - things that are new are risky by definition - and Sen needs to open a small number of outlets to gauge the reality of the market compared to research findings."

Russell argues that the key to success for Hutchison will be in building the Sen brand. "There is space and there is enough spend in this market. Hutchison is going past the independent outlets to create a brand and trust. Offering consultancy and add-ons like that will be attractive to consumers. Sen will have to differentiate itself to succeed. Boots is quite clinical in its look and approach so it should be quite easy."

And Boots is committed to the wellbeing market and is planning to ramp-up its activity next year. "There is a gap in the market to capitalise on the fact that people do want to look after themselves with products other than paracetamol," Michelle Ellis, a spokeswoman for Boots Healthcare, says.

In February 2003, Boots plans a full revamp of its complementary medicine offering as part of an initiative under the banner Healthy Living. However, smart marketing from Sen could still see the brand capitalise on the current thirst for complementary medicine.