Since Clive Moxham transformed Merchant Gourmet from an aloof specialist into an affordable everyday ingredients supplier, sales have been soaring. Nick Hughes reports
Clive Moxham's Eureka moment came last year when he took a phone call from a Merchant Gourmet customer. "The lady said, I found a box of Puy Lentils in my cupboard but it went out of date two years ago, can I still use them?"
The incident was indicative of how Merchant Gourmet, the premium ingredients brand for which Moxham is director, had lost its relevance to consumers and prompted a dramatic change in strategy that has seen retail sales leap 22% in the first six fiscal months of 2009.
"We'd become too inward-focused," admits Moxham. "We were fairly preachy. We had fantastic products, but they were always led by the fact that we, rather than the consumer, thought they were lovely."
Joining the company in August last year, Moxham wasted little time in stamping his mark on the brand. He stripped down the product line to the 40 most popular items, downsized products to reduce the price point of some by more than half, and repositioned items as everyday meal accompaniments rather than specialist ingredients. "Before, our Puy Lentils in a box would take 35 minutes to soak before cooking, now we've switched them to a pouch and it's one minute in a microwave. They've become our bestseller overnight." Sales are up 78% year-on-year while a move to RTE pouch grew sales of slow-roast tomatoes by 200%. Moxham reports strong gains in grains such as Quinoa, Wholesome Grains, Orzo, and Giant Cous Cous.
The retailers, many of whom had deserted Merchant Gourmet, are starting to regain faith. Morrisons has just listed 10 new lines, while Moxham reports "good wins" with Sainsbury's and Waitrose. Tesco has just agreed to stock Sun Blushed Tomatoes and Moxham notes encouraging consumer feedback for the new cereals and grains product range launched recently into Waitrose and Sainsbury's. "We're a far more focused proposition now. That means the retailer knows where to position us, and gives us mass when we're on shelf."
A new website, featuring video clips of celebrity chef Alex Mackay cooking simple dishes using Merchant Gourmet products, has also helped bring new consumers into the brand, says Moxham. "Historically our core consumer would have been 45 to 50 but now we've got 23 and 24-year-olds logging on to the website. My marketing manager says we're moving away from Margot from The Good Life to being a brand for everyday consumers. At the same time we don't want to scare off the Margots. We'll always sell authentic, premium products, just made easier for consumers to use."
Merchant Gourmet's pouched, ready-to-eat products will move into transparent packaging early next year to further improve accessibility, while a new range of added-value Puy Lentils one with porcini mushrooms and thyme, the other with sun-dried tomatoes and basil will hit the shelves this month.
Despite the brand's new found sense of identity, Moxham admits "there's still a lot of work to do". At least that work should no longer involve telling Margot how to dispose of her out-of-date lentils.