Boots the chemist is to make aromatherapy and reflexology sessions as easy as picking up a prescription.

Boots the chemist is to make aromatherapy and reflexology sessions as easy as picking up a prescription.

In trials due to start next month, branches are to offer customers the chance of a revitalising "marine cure" for the face alongside osteopathy for the back. A nutritionist will advise on diet while teachers of the Alexander Technique work on posture.

Boots is even planning workshops on "happy life skills" and programmes to tackle weight management and stress.

If the branch trials prove successful, the experiment could see a wide range of alternative or complementary therapies moving into the high street.

"We're responding to customer demand," a company spokeswoman said. "We carried out research and this was highlighted as something our customers want."

The first two branches to offer the services will be in Milton Keynes and High Street, Kensington, and the expansion follows the company's move into optical services and, recently, beauty parlours for men.

Neil Mason, retail consultant with market researchers Mintel, said the trial came as the health and beauty market faced stiff competition from the American discount giant Wal-Mart which has taken over Asda.

"Wal-Mart over the next year or so are going to be targeting a lot of non-food areas. Health and beauty is seen as being the first on the list of things they're going to roll back the prices on," he said.

The Boots innovation was aimed at providing a different service rather than competing directly on price. "By offering additional services, they're trying to move away from the price issue and from what supermarkets will be offering."

Boots advises that private health insurance plans might cover the cost of the more conventional treatments, such as chiropody and physiotherapy. The beauty treatments, including marine algae therapy and replenishing plant proteins, may be more of a special treat.

Yet, curiously, the planned provision of an in-store herbalist is a reminder of the company's roots. When founded in 1849, the first shop in Nottingham sold herbal remedies to the city's poor.

Although they later fell out of fashion as the chain developed, they were re-introduced in the early 1990s and have proved hugely popular. Around 1,000 of its pharmacists have also received homeopathy training.

A spokeswoman for the British Homeopathic Association, which has been consulted on the recruitment of trained homeopaths, welcomed the move.

"Boots is a reputable name and they're looking for medically qualified homeopaths, so there's full patient protection," she said.

"Demand for homeopaths outstrips supply and if it means people don't just go to Yellow Pages, it must surely be to the good. If Boots are going to do it, others will follow and that's good," she said.

Boots dominates the health and beauty market with an estimated 29 per cent share of the total toiletries, cosmetics and skincare market in Britain.

Mike Godliman, director of Verdict Research, said the effect of the introduction of alternative therapies, if taken up nationwide, should be good for the consumer. Nor should it threaten the good independent practitioner.

"If you're an independent (therapist) and you're any good, you will have loyal customers who will not leave you. But it will act as a spur to the market. The customer benefits."

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