aisle shelves

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Great retailers remember that food is at the heart of what they do, as are their suppliers

Here we go again. Change the name at the top of the page, but the request is the same. How many times can someone say the phrase ‘work together’ in four short paragraphs? The answer is three, according to the email Sainsbury’s sent out to its suppliers last week. But when will any retailer really ‘work together’ with its supply base rather than say it and actually mean that all it wants is their cash?

Suppliers know what is coming now because retailers are utterly predictable. The well of new ideas is not just dry, it has been replaced by a pool of despair. For the past 10 years some retailers have been on a drive for efficiency and, as profit has become tighter, this drive has become relentless. This means less range in store, more self-serve checkouts, fewer members of staff on the shop floor. It makes me ask ‘what on earth are they doing?’. I know it is common for retailers to look at each other and replicate the best bits of their competitors, but you are supposed to take these bits and make them better, not dilute them. Sainsbury’s has copied the Tesco/Aldi match and made it worse not better and now it has copied the buy for less programme that has been doing the rounds for the past 20 years, just in a worse form.

The UK grocery market used to be the envy of the world. Retailers from across the globe would look at what British grocery retailers were doing and admire how they balanced their portfolio of stores. Larger stores were genuine destinations with ranges that were broad, interesting and innovative. Food was at the heart of the proposition in ways customers would talk about. I remember when Asda used to claim to be ‘Britain’s biggest takeaway’ with sales from its Curry Pot instore. Do customers really have any genuine affection for where they shop any more?

When you focus on efficiency you remove emotion and connection. Food retailing done well brings excitement and sparks discussion. It focuses on delivering excellence and innovation, with staff members encouraged to talk to their customers instead of being measured on how efficient they are. Great retailers create a relationship with their customers: they have messages that customers understand, not ones that need to be deciphered by a brand expert. Great retailers also remember that food is at the heart of what they do, as are their suppliers.

I have been fortunate enough to travel the world and see retailing done in sorts of different styles, from the most basic to the most inspiring. Retailing done well is about ‘and’ not ‘or’. Quality and great prices, great range and simple shopping, the customer and the supplier, sales and profit. It is not just about ‘feeding the nation’, it’s not about soundbites and cost-saving initiatives. Food retailing is about bringing inspiring ideas to fruition. Creating fixtures and ranges that bring people together.

If you want to find a retailer who does this brilliantly then visit a Wegmans over in the US. It has innovation, inspiration and low prices, it is even better at EDLP than the world’s largest retailer. If you want inspiration in the UK then look no further than the high street: that is where the innovation and the excitement in food is coming from now.