Although Waitrose is famed for its dedicated approach to premium quality sourcing, the other leading multiples are now taking the market seriously.
Sainsbury is the only major supermarket to have a dedicated aisle, Special Selection, to showcase speciality foods from around the world in one space. In addition, products are merchandised within their own categories around the store.
Some suppliers prefer this. “By placing all speciality products in one place, consumers know where to find high-quality products,” says Suzanne Heffernan, retail marketing manager at Aarhus United, which supplies speciality foods, including tapenades, bruschetta toppings, oils and dried vegetables, under the Chalice brand.
“Most of the products are seen as luxury and are not used in everyday cooking, so devoting sections of the store makes sense.”
Other suppliers disapprove of designated areas for specialities.
“Consumers don’t have time to go searching around supermarkets,” says Fiona Mulroy, owner of The Shropshire Spice Company. “If they did have the time, they’d be more inclined to spend it down the high street visiting the butcher, baker and deli. We prefer that speciality products be merchandised alongside mainstream products as consumers need to be able to make a choice instantly.”
John Weaver, commercial director at speciality distributor Petty, Wood, voices a similar argument. “The most successful approach is integration into the most
logical category as a premium offering. Those that have created a speciality fixture generate less traffic for speciality products.”
Tesco includes speciality items within their specific categories. “People want to know where to go to get their bread. At that stage they make their choice between types, with many of our customers buying both Value and Finest,” says a Tesco spokeswoman.
But Tesco has also led the way with merchandising trials that integrate olives within other related categories, such as the wine aisle.
Asda, on the other hand, focuses its speciality and fine food merchandising on its locally sourced products.
Although it does have areas in some stores dedicated to top end products such as truffle oil and stuffed olives, its shoppers don’t want to buy these premium items with their weekly shop so they are limited to single bays. However, its initiative to sell locally sourced produce does demand its own space, at least at launch stage.
This month it introduced its latest regional hub, Best of
Kent, which joins other local sourcing hubs such as Best of Scotland and Best of East Anglia. For up to the first 12 weeks from launch, the produce will be merchandised at front-of-store, occupying two to three gondola ends.
“Once we’ve raised awareness, the products go into their own categories, so if a customer is looking for jam they can decide at the shelf,” says an Asda spokeswoman. “Food miles is always an issue for our customers, and if they see that a jam was made in a kitchen 500 yards up the road and wasn’t mass produced, they’re willing to pay a bit more.”
Sainsbury has recognised the need for store staff to be better trained in the purpose of the Special Selection aisle, and a review is taking place.
Knowledgeable staff give specialist stores a considerable advantage over the multiples.
As Guy Wolley, owner of London deli chain Mise-en-Place, says, it’s about identifying what delis do better than the supermarkets. “We know more about food, we’re interested in food, we offer an honesty about food, we offer tastings and we talk to customers. Supermarkets don’t give a toss.”
In fact, although most specialist retailers and food producers have few positive things to say about supermarkets - with some distributors even threatening delistings if a producer was to supply a multiple - the competition is driving delis to become even better specialists.
“We must try and find items that the supermarkets don't have,” says Peter Vogl, owner of Panzer’s deli in St John’s Wood, London. “We have to look for more exciting, niche products and offer far better service than you’ll get at Waitrose.”
According to Guild of Fine Food Retailers’ chief executive Bob Farrand, the food halls are leading the way as they can stock the widest ranges. Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods all pride themselves in only offering the premium in speciality products.
“We start from the best then offer even better,” says Fortnum & Mason grocery buyer Jonathan Miller.
“There’s no question mark over any of our food, even the cheapest is still the best. That’s what stands us apart.”