Those natural impulses Organic food has been a Waitrose obsession for nearly 20 years, but it is only six years since the niche achieved profit. Camilla Palmer talks to chief agronomist Alan Wilson Organic food has become something of a passion at Waitrose. But as Alan Wilson, the man behind the award winning offer, readily admits, it took time for customers to get as fired up about it as the retailer was. "We've been plugging away for almost 20 years," says Wilson, "and now it makes up 5% of our annual food sales." The reason for today's success is simple. "Consumers are becoming more and more discerning about what they eat and we have built up a reputation for being able to supply them with what they want," Wilson says. But it wasn't always so. Wilson is the first to admit that he's had to work hard for organic rights within Waitrose, which came close to admitting defeat and giving up in the early days. "I never remember it being a fight, but we had some uncertain times when we wondered when the range would come right," he says. "But I never doubted Waitrose would back our work." Wilson ­ who joined Waitrose 26 years ago as a management trainee and worked his way up to the position of agronomist ­ first became interested in the organic movement when suppliers began suggesting alternative ways to grow various vegetables. "We were all obsessed with regular colour and shape at the time, so we weren't convinced by any produce that deviated slightly from this," he says. It didn't help that the first organic products, grown by a carrot and potato farmer in the early 1980s, ran into problems. "They didn't sell," Wilson says. "And the reason? Poor quality and lack of availability. They became a millstone round our necks." There was hostility, too, from conventional fresh produce suppliers. "Organic farmers were seen as beards-and-sandals radicals," Wilson says. Other multiples had also taken the first tentative steps towards selling organic produce ­ unlike Waitrose, however, they pulled out. "We persuaded Waitrose to keep backing organics and set about developing a strategy with a key supplier that focused on high availability and superb quality," Wilson says. "It is a credit to our buyers and suppliers that we have achieved so much. They took big risks and chances to make organic produce a success." And the figures show how this dedication is now paying off. Today, Waitrose sells 850 organic products generating approximately £2m in sales each week. Currently, 15% of all fruit and vegetables sold in Waitrose are organic ­ Wilson wants to increase this to 20% by December. And babyfood is another successful line, with 50% of what Waitrose stocks being organic (a figure that could rise by another 5% by the end of the year). It's this level of commitment that has made Waitrose the darling of the organic sector ­ the multiple of choice for both the Soil Association and for consumers. But in many ways, Waitrose read the market correctly. It decision to stick with organics ­ just as its rivals had given up with the whole project ­ coincided with a massive sea change in consumer attitudes. Fed up with the barrage of food scares in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the public started looking for alternatives. And unlike in the early days, when they were dissatisfied with the appearance of those first organic potatoes and carrots, shoppers started to buy into the idea of this "natural looking" produce. Wilson says: "It was all down to those changing consumer attitudes towards food ­ they were asking themselves what they could trust and we were showing them a product with integrity." By 1994, organic food ceased to be a loss-making product line for Waitrose. But although Wilson says organics have to make a contribution to the bottom line, he insists Waitrose's commitment is deeper than that. "It took 10 years to make it work, but it wasn't just a question of profits ­ Waitrose shared consumers' concerns about food production systems and became frustrated with the lack of progress." Today, he believes that, like free range eggs, the organic brand has become a crucial lynchpin of the product range offered by Waitrose. "We know what our customers want and must give it to them, developing products that exceed their expectations," Wilson says. One thing he says Waitrose would love to see is a convergence of organic certification bodies in the UK. At the moment, there are many different accreditation schemes, with the Soil Association being the most prominent. "Growth and profile building within the sector will come from working to the same standards," says Wilson. Another potential stumbling block is the care that retailers need to exercise when marketing organic products. "We can't say they're better for you or that they taste better, even if personally we think they do," laughs Wilson, himself an enthusiastic consumer of organic food. Despite his hearty personal interest, Wilson is also focused on the business side of the organic category, which he says always needs careful nurturing. The Waitrose agronomist says much of his team's time is taken up with managing relationships within their supply base. Wilson argues that dealing with organic producers, who work on crop rotation and seasonal cycles, is a finely balanced skill. "Bullyboy tactics for getting quotas and availability don't work," he says. And he is clear that consumers must be prepared to pay a fair price for organics. "It is very important for consumers to understand why organic food costs more to grow," Wilson says. That's one reason why he is critical of the lower pricing strategies employed by rival retailers, which he says undermine the whole organic concept. It doesn't help that consumers have got used to artificially low prices on many conventional items, which stems from overproduction and intense farming. "Last year, conventionally grown carrots were retailing for 12p/lb, while organic ones were 59p/lb," says Wilson. "With that difference in price, it's not hard to see why some consumers are up in arms about pricing. "But it's a false comparison. Those conventional carrots are artificially cheap, which makes the organic ones seem more expensive." And he adds: "There is no point in hiding the price differential from consumers. They have made a choice to buy organics and it's crucial that the suppliers get a fair deal. If you pressure them on price just to sell organics to consumers for less, then there's no hope for the sector ­ eventually it will die." Despite the pressures being exerted by Waitrose's rivals, Wilson is convinced the sector has an exciting future. One reason for that optimism is that Wilson believes consumers are again challenging accepted theories of what constitutes "safe" food. And that's why he believes it will remain a key category within Waitrose. "Eating organic products reminds consumers what food production ­ not overproduction ­ is really about," he concludes. {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}