Produce buyer Alistair Stone discusses what the experiential retailer is looking for from its supply chain
As a buyer at upmarket retailer Waitrose, Alistair Stone claims he is not solely focused on making higher margins or selling more volume, rather he says the aim of the game is all about pleasing the consumer by selling better quality.
“At Waitrose we’re about being experiential and offering wonderful food, customer service and value,” he comments. “We have a level of loyalty with our consumers because we sell a lot of really good quality products.”
Waitrose may only have a 5% share of the UK grocery market but in fresh produce Stone says that rises to about 8% and for certain categories, such as asparagus, it’s well into double digits.
“Our area of specialism is fresh food and we can really drive a lot of volume on these lines, so long as they constantly delight the customer,” he notes.
To achieve that, Waitrose sets the bar very high. “We have good relationships with our growers and they know we expect a certain level of quality – we aim to source the best,” Stone reveals.
“Standard setting and specifications are a big thing across the UK. It’s a challenge to get people to meet not just European standards but actually the expected level for the UK, which is probably even higher.”
Stone says those who have traditionally supplied the UK are a lot closer to understanding what the market requires.
From a category management point of view, traditional suppliers also better understand the characteristics of individual businesses in the UK, as well as what they’re looking for.
That said, Stone doesn’t believe it’s difficult to supply any market as long as you’re clear about what that market is looking for.
At Waitrose specifically, the buying team is always looking to buy well, but they are also looking for something that gives the retailer a point of difference.
“For me, the biggest single thing is having innovation in our categories and the leaders in genuine innovation will be in demand,” Stone remarks.
And while Waitrose is a strong supporter of UK-grown produce, Stone points out that he will only buy British if it is of good enough quality.
“I think selling poor produce would damage the UK market,” he comments. “Therefore, when I can’t get what I need from home, I’ll look elsewhere.”
Likewise, any overseas suppliers looking to sell to Waitrose have got to offer the retailer something it cannot source from the UK or elsewhere and be doing something different to their competitors.
“As you would expect, Waitrose buys a lot of produce from the UK and Europe because shipping is easier and prices are therefore cheaper,” Stone says.
“So if we go further afield, what’s the point of difference and why is it better? Why our consumers would look for products from somewhere else would normally boil down to better quality, varieties, availability and perceived value.”
But if a company can successfully supply a well developed, discerning market like the UK, Stone points out that it’s a great advert for their business.
“I have suppliers overseas that highlight in their company literature that they supply Waitrose as a badge of honour,” he says.
“They use it in their marketing – the fact that if they’re good enough to supply the UK, they’re good enough to supply pretty much anyone.”
With innovation crucial for Waitrose, Stone says the retailer does not simply wait for someone to come up with the next wonderful product.
“We may deal with the brokers, importers and marketing agencies, but we have very strong relationships with the growers and seed houses too, so we’re already there working with those who are actually developing new products, explaining what we think our consumers need,” he reveals.
“It’s very well forward planned because it takes eight to 10 years to develop a new potato variety, for example, or a new type of apple.
“As an experiential retailer if we’re not doing that we will lose our points of difference in the future. At the same time, we look to give our customers the day to day value they expect.”
Secret to success
Indeed, Waitrose has reaped huge success amidst a challenging retailing environment in the UK by offering consumers a unique shopping experience and making its stores appealing to visit.
“Waitrose is exciting for consumers because of the experience of seeing wonderful products and trusting that they’re going to be lovely to eat, plus they’re priced and sold in an environment which is relaxing and offers great customer service,” Stone says.
He believes Waitrose has been particularly successful as an experiential retailer because the chain offers good value, lovely surroundings in which to shop, special offers, a great online shopping platform, investment in new product and varietal development and new stores.
“There is a lot you can do to improve the experience for shoppers,” he notes. “Waitrose has spent a lot on hospitality and our cafés are absolutely flying. With our loyalty card, shoppers can get free coffee and newspapers when they spend over £5.
“We’ve also introduced ‘grazing’ so shoppers have the opportunity to stop within the aisles to taste and learn about food and drink – we see that as a real trend coming down the line.”
In the future, Stone firmly believes offering customers these types of services will be absolutely key to a retailer’s success in the UK.
“Growth in the UK will come from those channels where we are seeing movement right now, like eCommerce and convenience,” he says.
“Retailers with the best customer service will win, through options such as picking up your groceries at tube stations or airports, or having no substitutions in their online deliveries.”