In a previous life, Somerfield store manager Jason Butts worked as a chef, serving luminaries ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Gary Lineker while working at some of London’s most opulent hotels including The Savoy, The Dorchester and Claridges. So while waiting to meet him for my initiation as the newest colleague at the retailer’s Market Fresh store in East Dulwich I pray he has not picked up the ‘shout, swear and throw’ approach of certain chefs. Luckily he hasn’t.
Having spent university holidays sweeping out miniature houses in a model village in Bucks, I had missed out on the student rite of passage of working in a shop. Would I be able to replenish shelves quickly? Would I be able to locate the right stock out back? Would I be able to deal with demanding customers?
The Somerfield Market Fresh is a good place to find out. Opened in June following a £1.8m revamp transforming the store from 4,970 sq ft to 7, 063 sq ft, it’s the third and largest pilot store carrying this new fascia. It’s located in busy Lordship Lane, along with a number of independent retailers, a great-looking delicatessen and a Sainsbury at the end of the road.
As its name suggests, fresh and chilled is its raison d’être. The store sells 300 lines of fruit and veg and I was to work with produce manager Muralee.
Since opening as Market Fresh the store had lost a few of its elder customers. “Their perception was that price had gone up although it has not altered,” explains Butts.
But its strong fresh offer has attracted many new shoppers. “Our biggest issue is
shelf capacity. I could do with double the space and also an organic range,” says Butts.
At 10am the night staff have been busy and the shelves are mostly full. The night staff, who work between 10pm and 6am, unload 90 cages of stock of which 30 are allocated to produce. Muralee and I begin to check the stock is merchandised well. Carrots are to be piled beautifully one on top of the other. Likewise parsnips. By the end they look like works of art.
The problem is this doesn’t last long. A customer delves in, checks a number of carrots and puts them back untidily. Back I go to make it look good again. I discover this is a no-win game. Butts isn’t lying when he says he it’s a blitz every day. “We are constantly on the go. Produce, meat and dairy fly off the shelves,” he says.
A special fixture at the entrance of store is filled with strawberries. Muralee asks me to check the top layer is always full, check the sell-by dates and rotate stock accordingly.
By 11.30am, it’s time to bring more stock out in anticipation of the lunch rush. Food to go is especially popular in this store and located by produce so we need to keep an eye on stock levels here as well.
The stock is located above the store and getting hold of fruit and veg necessitates going into a refrigerated area, searching for what you want among endless crates that all look the same to me and then somehow managing to lift the correct crate down.
Muralee seems to have x-ray vision and knows exactly what is in each box. I reach up for a box of bananas but decide it’s best left to the professionals. There’s no need to go to the gym with this job.
There is a knack to stacking as much as possible on a trolley. Bags of (very heavy) potatoes go on first, then boxes of apples, bananas, squash and tomatoes. Lighter boxes of bagged salads go on top of those - and then a few herbs in pots just to top it off.
Surprisingly it doesn’t topple over as Muralee wheels it into the lift. Negotiating the aisles without disturbing customers proves more of a problem. Finding a space to park it even harder. Muralee is a dab hand at all this. As we unpack the bananas he checks for marks customers would find unacceptable. I am amazed bananas are wasted that I would be happy to eat but Muralee says they will be left on the shelf if put out. Sure enough, on cue, a shopper rifles though and picks up five bunches before finding one she thinks looks and feels right.
By this time my feet are already hurting so I’m relieved I can have a lunch break. After lunch produce assistant Mohammad Islam joins us. Islam, as the team calls him, is a perfectionist. He tells me he takes great pride in ensuring the produce always looks inviting and well stocked. It shows.
After the lunch rush, we are called out back. Butts wants to update the team on the store’s performance. The good news is that it is leading so far in the current produce incentive. This 12-week scheme gives points for every £1 you are above sales and every £1 below wastage.
We currently have 42,000 points, with the nearest rival at 31,000.
And there is a double celebration. It’s deputy manager John Joseph’s birthday so we all tuck into some chocolate cake.
After a couple more hours of filling shelves, directing customers to people who can help with their enquiries and continuing my cardio-vascular workout up and down the stairs, it’s time to go. I am let out before the mad commuter rush at 6pm. The other colleagues are getting shelves fully stocked in readiness for the next day.
That Friday, produce took £3,215. Total sales that week were £146,319 with produce contributing £25,720. Sales are running 56% up year-on-year and it looks like the East Dulwich staff will be celebrating coming top of the incentive scheme.