Waitrose is under the cosh with falling sales and a troublesome IT upgrade. But its commercial director is confident a focus on quality can see it through

It’s late November and Christmas is in full swing at the Waitrose store in Berkhamsted. Seasonal displays burst with crackers and champagne, festive decorations glisten beneath the ceiling, and a seasonal jingle plays through the speakers. 

Charlotte Di Cello, the supermarket’s commercial director, is on an impassioned show-and-tell of all things Christmas-related, from pear & fig mince pies to Heston’s hot chocolate pennies. “My kids love to drop them in hot milk. I prefer to dip them in a glass of liquor after I put them to bed,” she smiles. 

’Tis the season, of course, but Di Cello may not be the only one at Waitrose reaching for a stiff drink this Christmas. The upmarket retailer is under the cosh right now after seeing like-for-like sales fall 5% in the first six months of the year in a sign that even its avowedly middle class shoppers are feeling the pinch, with Waitrose’s very own trends report recently highlighting its shoppers were increasingly buying cheaper protein alternatives like Spam and fish heads. 

‘How Waitrose lost the middle classes’ is now regular fodder for the Sunday papers, which often contrast its fortunes to arch-rival Marks & Spencer, whose food sales seemingly go from strength to strength.

But Di Cello is not one to panic. While she insists Waitrose is not “tone deaf to the needs of our customers,” nor will it be sucked into what is no doubt a temporary situation. 

“We’ve been through recessions before and we’re not going to change who we are and what we stand for because that’s what customers love about us.”

The reality is Waitrose will never compete on price with Asda or the discounters. Instead, it’s opting to double down on its core selling points – with a slight, value-driven twist.

“The brand’s history hasn’t really changed,” Di Cello says. “We’re still a purpose-driven business built on offering great quality, great taste, and fantastic service, in a sustainable way.”

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But initiatives like the new ‘ways to save less’ value campaign, with a colourful new logo used to highlight offers in store and online, shows it understands these are “very testing times right now” for everyone.

This strategy casts Di Cello, with responsibility for supplier relationships, as a central figure in Waitrose’s success. While the retailer wants to focus on quality over price, Di Cello will have to find ways to ensure even cash-cautious shoppers are given reason to part with their money. 

And unusually, in the current circumstances at least, that includes greater focus on brands. So far this year, she’s landed a raft of curated partnerships clearly designed for the middle class masses: Deliciously Ella, Planet Organic, Montezuma, Caffè Nero, as well as posh frozen ready meals brand ByRuby. On the flipside, she has also brought back the popular free coffee offer for MyWaitrose shoppers. 

‘Waitrose will be a better version of itself next year. I have no doubt’

As Di Cello says though, Waitrose isn’t tone-deaf to the situation around it. Like all supermarkets, it’s looking to capitalise on more people eating in to save money on restaurants and has launched a new £12 dine in meal deal for two that takes direct aim at M&S’s famous meal deal.

“We are probably better set than what we were in the last recession to receive that tailwind of hospitality and the on trade coming in,” Di Cello argues.

The offer is “performing ahead of expectations,” she adds. 

Name: Charlotte Di Cello

Role: Commercial director at Waitrose 

Age: 44 

Status: Married with two kids, Lucas and Isabel 

Potted CV: Trained as a chartered accountant at PwC, then L’Oréal, Sainsbury’s for 13 years, CCO at Leon and now Waitrose  

Business idol: Jane Wurwand, founder and CEO of Dermalogica. Had a good idea and is executing it brilliantly. 

As a fellow mum of two, she’s learned (the hard way) how to prioritise the moment.

Best travel memory: Summer holidays with my grandparents in Japan

Last great book you’ve read: Before & Laughter by Jimmy Carr

Dream dinner guest: Gordon Ramsay.

Impatient and ambitious

Di Cello has no plans to let up. “I’m very impatient,” she says. “And ambitious.” When asked who keeps her impatience in check, she laughs at the suggestion it’s her boss, Waitrose executive director James Bailey. Di Cello and Bailey go back a long way, first meeting at Sainsbury’s in 2012 after she returned to London from a six-month stint as Asia head of food in Hong Kong. The two share a background in finance too – 

Di Cello was a chartered accountant by trade who pivoted to commercial, while Bailey started out at Sainsbury’s as a business planning manager. 

The pair worked together for six years at Sainsbury’s across different departments including frozen and packaged grocery, before finally parting ways when Di Cello went to become Leon’s CCO and grocery MD in the summer of 2019. Her time in hospitality was relatively short-lived though, moving to Waitrose 18 months later. 

“We get on personally and professionally, which given everything that’s going on is hugely valuable,” she says of her relationship with Bailey. “I think where we differ is I’m a real foodie. He certainly enjoys his food but I think that’s where we differ.” 

It is a rare point of difference for the pair who “maybe eight-and-a-half times out of 10 will do the same thing”. And perhaps most importantly, they are aligned on how to crystallise their vision for Waitrose and the milestones needed to reach it. “I’d like to think we make a good team.”


One of those milestones is fixing the bugbear that is the supermarket’s upgrade of its Oracle enterprise resource planning system, now in its sixth year and still causing problems. 

The “bungled” IT system has been blamed externally for skewering the supermarket’s stock control levels, but Waitrose insists this is far from the case.

Di Cello says availability is the best it’s been since pre-pandemic and last time she checked, it stood at 95% for the full range. “There were days last week where we were almost at 96%.”

For now, the Oracle system is only used for around two-thirds of Waitrose’s stock base, meaning a decision is outstanding on whether to roll it out across all fresh products as well.

‘We’re not going to change who we are’

On the one hand, Di Cello knows it is a way to modernise Waitrose’s supply chain, yet she’s well aware of the disruption it can cause. So for the time being any further updates across fresh will be paused until after Christmas. “We’re not making any more changes so the system is stable and we worry about the most important thing – delivering an awesome Christmas.” 

When the time is right, however, Di Cello is “really confident [any further upgrade] will happen in the right time and it will be a step towards change, towards better,” supported by further tweaks to the range, to address unnecessary product overlap, which further contributes to out of stocks, and gaps in the current offer.  

“We’ve got to optimise and identify the ranges we want to have as authoritative ranges. For instance herbs and spices we have taken the brand out – it’s an authority area we should absolutely own that. But there are other parts of the shop that might be less important for us because we can’t have a huge range everywhere, it can’t be as big as Tesco’s.”

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Eggs shortages 

The morning we meet, Waitrose has received some more favourable press in the form of its £2.6m aid package to support egg farmers

A combination of bird flu and cost price recovery pressures has catapulted the egg industry into crisis, with shortages now commonplace across all major supermarkets. Waitrose is “probably one of the only grocers that isn’t capping eggs,” Di Cello suggests, “and that’s because we’ve got really strong relationships with our farmers who we pay fairly.”

“Having open, honest and trusting relationships with our suppliers, particularly right now, is key. We both want the same thing – to sell great products to more customers and do it in a way that is profitable enough for everyone.” 

Not everyone would agree, though. One major supplier told The Grocer Waitrose operates on a “positively Victorian” back margin model, which is often a “barrier to doing business” and can result in a lengthy period of negotiation as well as “disruption to the business, lost sales and opportunities”.

Where true, it’s something Di Cello is eager to change. 

“There is a lot of time caught up in back margin conversations, like many things across the end-to-end supply chain,” she concedes. “I think we need to continually look at the way that we do all things to make sure that we are delivering the best version of ourselves in the most effective way.” At a recent supplier conference, she told attendees she wanted Waitrose to be the “number one grocer to do business with” and while progress has been made this year, she concedes “there is still work to do”. 

While it can seem like a lot on just one person’s plate, Di Cello is undaunted. “We’ve got all these fantastic opportunities, now it’s all about what are we going to prioritise next?” she says, rather impatiently. But there is one thing she is crystal clear on: “Waitrose will be a better version of itself next year. I have no doubt.”