Winning the prize was no mean feat. Entries to the award were limited to those privately-owned companies appearing on The Grocer Top 50 annual listing of Britain's biggest and best independent retail chains. These entries then went before an impressive judging panel, which was led by John Timpson, chairman of Timpsons. Our judges shortlisted those companies with outstanding growth records, strong corporate values and a clear business strategy.
The shortlist was impressive, comprising two convenience store companies, a forecourt supermarket operator, a chain of organic stores and, in Booths, a family-owned, regional supermarket group. That shortlist confirms not only the diversity of today's independent retail sector but also the fact that the best operators can prosper even in a highly consolidated and competitive market like the UK.
So why did Booths stand out? Well, for starters, the judges were impressed by the fact that even though it operates in the highly competitive supermarket sector, and is going head to head with some of the biggest retail companies in Britain, Booths is generating industry-beating, like-for-like sales growth. They also liked the fact that, despite its £170m turnover, and 27 stores in four counties, the company has retained small company values that clearly run right through its business. The judges felt that was particularly true in relation to the way Booths looks after its staff. The company has a real passion for quality and local sourcing ­ communicated effectively through its Welcome to Booths Country' marketing activity. And its focus on customer service was thought to be second to none.
All in all, Booths has come up with an excellent formula for growth at a time when the grocery market is polarising between the value-focused players and those with a strong quality proposition. That is borne out by financial data from Booths, which saw its like-for-like sales hit 6.6% at Christmas ­ way ahead of the grocery market as a whole. And Edwin Booth says the company is performing strongly in its current financial year, with same-store sales running 10% ahead, helped in part by a "stonking" performance at Easter.
The growing interest among shoppers in issues such as provenance and localness is clearly working in Booths' favour, but the chain has worked hard over a number of years to ensure it is well placed to meet the needs of those shoppers who demand a quality food offer, which is delivered by well trained staff in first rate stores.
"We have been shrewd in having stores in the right positions to serve the market that we are good at serving," he says. "That has given us the confidence to play the quality card more strongly and wrap some meaningful promotions around that."
As Booth points out, cornflakes and beans are still important to his business, and having good promotions not only helps it remain competitive but also adds to the excitement in stores. And he is quick to highlight the work Booths does among shoppers to check how they view the chain's price position. The good news, he says, is that more than 90% are impressed.
"Nisa is pretty crucial here," says Booth, who has been a director of the retail buying group for 26 years, and who is currently its deputy chairman. He explains that its ability to negotiate, particularly with the big brands, has helped Booths keep its head above the parapet. "It's a very elemental part of the profitability of our business and it is for many others too," he adds.
Booths' business success has also been underpinned by hefty investment in stores and infrastructure. It has built a £14m central distribution centre in Bluebell Way, Preston, which handles more than 20,000 SKUs. As Booth says: "Even though we are preoccupied with quality at the front end, we are sanguine about the fact that in a multiple scenario logistics is vital to the bottom line."
The company embraces new thinking, as the recent launch of a new auto replenishment project in its stores demonstrates. Dubbed Project Refresh, it combines sales-based ordering on frozen and ambient lines with other initiatives such as category management and smarter staff rostering to deliver on a number of fronts. Booth says the benefits will include more effective merchandising in stores, better replenishment, improved availability and, from the shoppers' perspective, more attractive displays. "The project should be completed within 18 months and within 24 months we should see significant benefits in terms of sales and profit."
On the stores front, Booths opened a supermarket in Settle in the last financial year and bought the 29,000 sq ft Lakes Foodstore in Keswick last September. Starting in the autumn of 2004 it will open three supermarkets ­ in Kendle, Chorley and Lytham ­ to replace older and smaller stores that are in the towns. The fallout from the ongoing Safeway auction may also allow Booths to pick up stores in new locations. But even without any new stores this year, Booths clearly has the strategy in place to ensure it will continue to motor ahead, making it a truly worthy winner of the first Grocer Gold Award for best independent retail chain.