It’s hard to imagine self-styled ‘Chubby Grocer’ Mark Price was once a semi-professional golfer. He was also quite a tasty footballer - on the books of Crewe Alexandra, no less - and had visions of becoming a marine archaeologist.
A lot has changed, clearly, for the MD of Waitrose, as he celebrates 30 years with the John Lewis Partnership this week. So how did the fresh-faced exec arrive at this juncture? How is Waitrose performing? And what are his plans?
If every career has a defining moment, for Price it was a county golf tournament in Southampton in his late twenties. Double bogeying the first two holes, “I had to work really hard, over the next 16 holes, to get myself back to par. I was absolutely drained, and I thought, if I put this much effort into my work, I’m sure it will be more beneficial in the long term.”
Sitting with Price over breakfast in a Mayfair hotel, the benefits are plain to see. And Price looks back fondly and proudly on the transformation in his personal circumstances and those of the supermarket chain he runs. “For the last four years, we’ve been growing at a much faster rate than the big four,” he says.
The game has changed, but not, it seems, the competitive instinct. “I love to win,” he admits. “Seeing the results we achieve as an organisation. The drug of retail, the constant fix, daily, weekly, monthly. I love Nielsen every month. Verdict every month. IGD every week. I know how we’re performing daily. And weekly as a competitive set.
“And then, there’s the continual striving, and leading a team to do that. It’s not about the money, the title, the status. It’s genuinely doing the right thing, achieving the right results. And building a team of people that I like to work with, and that wants to work together.”
Name: Mark Price
Job title: MD, Waitrose
Born: Nantwich, 1961. His father was a greengrocer and later a successful wholesaler
Status: married with two daughters
Education: 2:1 in Archaeology, Lancaster University
Career: joined JLP in 1982 as graduate trainee. MD of John Lewis High Wycombe and then John Lewis Cheadle. Moved to Waitrose management board as director of selling and marketing. Returned to JLP as partnership development director (responsible for strategy). Returned to Waitrose in 2007 as MD
Other interests: chairman of Business in the Community since 2011 chairman of Prince’s Countryside Fund non-executive director Channel 4
Hobbies: marine archaeology, sport
As the son of a greengrocer and wholesaler, retail was in the blood, but he fell into it almost by accident. “It was the 1982 recession, and although, after graduating, I had notions of becoming a marine archaeologist, my father advised me to just get a job.” Price applied to three graduate training courses - with JLP, Marks & Spencer and Thomson Holidays - and despite fierce competition, was offered a place on two, choosing JLP over M&S on the back of some further fatherly advice.
“I was really lucky,” he recalls. “I was posted to Southampton [JLP’s Tyrrell & Green department store], and had the most brilliant MD, Brian O’Callaghan, who went on to run JL itself. He was a fantastic retailer and unbelievably generous with his time. Every single week, we had an afternoon of his time, and he would talk about all aspects of trade. The scheme sent me to John Lewis, Waitrose and I worked in buying and retailing. That grounding, instilling the culture of the partnership, and understanding what good retailing is, was a fantastic education.”
But Price is none too sentimental when it comes to the olden days. Despite his interest in archaeology, he is awed by the progress that’s been made.
“You look at what it was like then, it was shocking. Waitrose closed at 4pm on a Saturday. It was closed all day Sunday. And on Monday, it didn’t open again till 1pm. Now it’s open 8am-9pm six days a week, and six hours on a Sunday.”
The archaeologist in Price has also found, in retail, the granularity he evidently craved, as he rattles off numbers to demonstrate the change.
“Food in 1982 was a £37bn market. Now it’s £156bn. And where the multiples accounted for 50% in 1982, now that figure is around 90%. What’s caused that change? The world then was very different: 4% had dishwashers. Now 40% have dishwashers. In 1982, 50% used teabags. Now 96% of us use them.
“With extra spending power, choice has ballooned, and with it, consumer behaviour, but you have to say the grocery market has done a brilliant job. If you look at the cost of a home, it was £28,000. Now it’s £165,000. A loaf of bread was 37p, now it’s 69p. Milk was 20p, now it’s 49p. It’s expanded, opened more outlets, and offered more choice, while prices have gone up by nowhere near the cost of inflation.”
Next week, JLP reports its numbers. Against the backdrop of the worst economic conditions since Price entered the trade, he’s expecting Waitrose to buck the trend once again.
The most recent Kantar market share till roll data showed growth for the 12 weeks to 5 August was up by 7.4% on the same period last year - significantly higher than the 3.9% market rate growth. “We’ve traded really strongly in the first 26 weeks,” he says. “Over the summer months, each month has been better than the last. The Jubilee was just brilliant. And the pre-Olympic week was 13. 14%.” Even in London over the Olympics, trade has been really strong, he adds.
So how does Waitrose keep cranking out such defiantly positive numbers? While demographics clearly help, he rejects suggestions that Waitrose is merely benefiting from its more affluent customer base.
“The switching data doesn’t bear that out. We’re gaining from everyone. Across the board. We gained 300,000 additional customers in the first half. And we’re gaining more items per basket, too.”
Price can’t put his finger on the single most important factor in its success. “We’re doing lots of things that appeal to customers: marketing, pricing, product launches, online service, there’s a whole basket of measures. One thing that helps is to be really good at seasonal events,” he says, picking out the Queen’s Jubilee picnics as a highlight of the year. And CSR policies have been instrumental in its success. “The term CSR wasn’t coined when I started. But if you look at the effort we put in to that now, it’s far greater. Our ability to deliver that is part of the reason we grow.”
Product innovations and new launches 1982
- Trial of pre packed sandwiches in Andover
- Pre-boiled ‘salad eggs’ (37p for six)
- Fruit & nut muesli
- Honey roast sliced ham
- Petite beurre all butter biscuits
- Sweet & sour chicken, chilli con carne and minced beef in bolognese sauce ready meals
- French bread pizzas
- Chicken kiev
- Cordon bleu
- Pizza bases
- Five spice powder
- Low-calorie soups
- Frozen profiteroles
Amidst the show of its Heston and Delia tie-ups, the other key has been trying to unlock more value. Price has introduced a range of value-based initiatives in his tenure, most notably the launch of the Waitrose Essential range in 2008, and a Tesco price match on 1,000 brands in 2010. This year it was extended to include all branded groceries for sale at Tesco.
This, he insists, is one of the key benefits of Waitrose’s continuing growth. “Bigger isn’t better,” he says. “Better is better. But greater scale is giving us the opportunity to compete.”
With profits last year declining, critics would argue Waitrose is running out of runway. Price denies this. “If you look at the key metrics, our ROC is above the industry norm. In 2010, our profit margin was 6.4%. My view was that we were running too hot. At Tesco it’s 5.2%. At Morrisons it is 5%. At Waitrose it’s now down to 4.9%. We might want to be a tiny bit higher, and I don’t want to see it move lower than that, but 4.9% is still the envy of the vast majority of retailers. And what people forget is that we said we would cool it down. So we’ve invested behind online we’ve rolled out convenience and we’ve opened outside the UK, via the Channel Islands, with different systems under a different tax environment. All of that takes investment, but I’m confident in the long term benefits of these moves.”
One long-term benefit, having developed the systems to support the Channel Islands, might be to expand outside the UK. And in 2008, Waitrose opened its first operation in the Middle East. But currently there are no plans to roll out further stores internationally.
“We don’t think we will do that,” he says. “Opening shops outside the UK is not that attractive to us. We think the opportunity is greater in the UK. But Duchy Originals and Waitrose as an fmcg brand is growing internationally. It’s a good way to extend the Waitrose brand: the risk is low, with no real capital outlay it’s profitable and it helps our suppliers.”
So how does Price intend to grow Waitrose in the UK? Price admits Waitrose will not reach his target of 400 shops by 2016, set five years ago, as store expansion - around 10 per year - is paid for out of cashflow, while opportunities remain limited. But turnover is likely to be higher than the £8bn figure he targeted at the time. That’s down to a number of opportunities, expected and unexpected.
The first is Little Waitrose. Since the original convenience store opened in Nottingham in 2008, a further 32 have rolled out. Price is delighted by the progress, though he admits convenience is a work in progress. One important learning is around price. After initially pricing goods at the same level as its supermarkets, Waitrose has been matching Tesco c-stores on brands, while on own label “we play it by ear”. In the case of the 17 Welcome Break franchise stores, prices may be higher than the 2.5% to 3% average premium, but as well as employing the partners in these stores, Waitrose sets the premium. “We don’t want the brand to be destroyed by charging too high a cost,” he explains. “The operation cost is higher, but we won’t allow it to go too high.”
But it’s ranging that has provided the greatest challenge. “Waitrose has two convenience offers. One is urban footfall: business workers in locations such as High Holborn want lunchtime, breakfast and take home options for dinner. The other is a neighbourhood shop, like our c-store in Hampton, a 500 to 600 sq ft store that fulfils part of a weekly shop.
“What we’re learning is to find the right combination of location and type of customer. And we have to decide, do we run with one or both? What are the economics? So far, it’s worked pretty well. The vast majority are ahead of plan. But in your financial analysis you need to factor into the strike rate the fact that normally one in 10 don’t work. We’ve got around 30, and we’ve closed one or two. But we’ll try to open one somewhere else to maintain employment, because once you join the Partnership, we want to offer continued employment.”
A similar process of trial and error governs all aspects of the business, Price adds. “Every year, we now launch 4,500 products. Some work some don’t. Sometimes you don’t understand why a category flies or fails. You’re constantly learning and adapting. Part of the DNA is that we are very self-critical as a business. For example, the Richmond branch didn’t work, so two months later, we relaid it. We’re not afraid of negative feedback. Even personal criticism. Mrs Price keeps me honest.”
A second key opportunity identified by Price is Waitrose.com. It’s one of the few areas in which Waitrose has appeared to mess up during Price’s time in charge, with customers up in arms when it launched its new website in the spring of 2011. Even today, it is not without its issues. My random search for Orbit chewing gum recommended ‘wine gums’. What happened with the upgrade? And is Price satisfied it’s now working?
“I think it’s fixed. Yes. We’ve been the fastest-growing online grocer for some time, and our sales were up 70% last month, so we’re very happy. Our platform was 12 years old, which in terms of the internet is light years ago. But we were the first to move to bleeding edge technology. We had to move 60 million bits of data in a one-hour window. So there were bound to be teething problems. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and the others have all got this to look forward to.
“The website was designed in such a way you had to have an up-to-date computer, with the latest browser and really fast broadband,” he adds. “But have we set ourselves up to have a market-leading website? Yes I think we have. As more people upgrade their computers, and their broadband, the value of our website will really start to deliver.”
Nonetheless, the “seismic” changes brought by the internet have forced Price to re-evaluate some of his original projections. “This is the biggest revolution since the advent of the supermarket, and I’m really trying to get to the bottom of how the internet and social media are going to revolutionise the industry, what it does for us, and what it means for our estate.”
Product innovations and new launches 2012
- Heston from Waitrose - salted caramel popcorn, mustard ice cream, curry spiced popcorn and hidden orange Christmas pudding
- Menu from Waitrose - smoked haddock & salmon tians, chilli crab linguine and mushroom & chestnut risotto
- Duchy Originals from Waitrose - Sandringham strawberry yoghurt, velvety beetroot soup with chopped dill and lemon curd ice cream
- Seriously from Waitrose - coconut macaroons, raspberry & elderflower terrine and mango & lime coulis
Price believes Waitrose.com could account for 6% of its sales (a business roughly the size of Ocado today) by the end of the decade (when the Ocado contract runs out), and believes the eventual figure could reach 20%.
As well as grasping, so determinedly, the online opportunity, Price is also embracing technology in other areas of the business. One example is self-scan tills. And once again, the move has not always gone down well with customers. As a supermarket that prides itself on being the last word in customer service, the feedback on its self-checkout - via social networks and in-store - suggests technology is once again proving Waitrose’s weak spot, with criticism ranging from the familiar unexpected bagging errors to the fact they don’t accept cash, or provide cash back, as well as the sheer number installed.
Trial and error, Price admits, has once again been the watchword. “We are still learning what our customers value, and if we go too far in a store we can change it. But initial trails show up to 40% of transactions are now going through self-service,” he says. “It goes to show service for some people is about doing it for themselves, and being able to get in and out quickly.”
“In terms of the model we’ve chosen, we put a variety of machines in. And we found very, very few wanted cash, less than 10%. With the increasing use of smartphones for payment, we think cash will become even less important, so it’s about borrowing the best of what’s out there, in terms of legacy systems, and setting out our vision for the future.”
As Waitrose grapples with the possibilities of technology, however, Price admits the stakes are high: “What you touch on is a key strategic issue for Waitrose. In a world where technology wins, what does that mean for a retailer that’s based a lot of its commercial success on service?
“In terms of SCO [self-checkout], ours have got to be more intuitive, and we’ve got to have a partner standing there to jump in the minute something goes wrong. But that question applies throughout the shop: with internet shopping or click and collect, how do we build service so you feel you’re still getting a better quality of service than you get elsewhere.”
And then there’s the behind-the-scenes work to improve availability. Waitrose is about to introduce a £25m upgrade to its warehousing management systems. Can it improve availability, which stands, by Price’s own admission, at a relatively lowly 93%? “We’ve introduced more ranges, so the space we dedicate to a range tends to be less, and with more items on promotion, or if a product is recommended, it can present all kinds of problems. I don’t want to make an excuse, we are always looking to improve, but the challenge is getting a balance between availability and wastage.”
The other area of focus is less technological and more conceptual, as Price tries to unlock the value of the chain’s “intellectual property”. To Price, in the age of the internet, Waitrose - and retail itself - is becoming a simple content provider. “Effectively we are a distributor. As is the Daily Mail, which is selling 3,000 items on its website.” That’s where own-label becomes truly valuable, but it’s not limited to own-label. “We own content with Delia and Heston. We’ve got Waitrose Weekend. How do we leverage these properties? How will Waitrose challenge what we are in the future? And vice versa. There are lots of opportunities”
As he looks forward, then, Price is clearly still excited, still competitive. And having spent the past 30 years building up his career, he has no intention of either jumping ship to a rival, or playing more golf.
“I’m still very hungry. I think Waitrose is just the most wonderful brand, and should aspire to be double its size today. We’ve got 280 shops. We could double that number. We’re rapidly growing our internet business. We’ve got a big stretch into the future.”