The buying game The knack when buying for Waitrose is to keep one step ahead of the opposition says Rachel Pearson, central buyer for foodservice Camilla Palmer reports With a background at Harrods and four years' charcuterie buying under her belt, Rachel Pearson came on board at the right time for Waitrose's ambitious new product development plans. Now central buyer for foodservice, Pearson says Waitrose's reputation for recipe innovation was one of the reasons she took a job at Bracknell. "Waitrose takes good food seriously," she says. "It was the only multiple that sprang to mind as a retailer where quality was of paramount importance." Her role in the buying team meant she continued to deal with the same suppliers to develop high-quality products for Waitrose. "That was my litmus test for quality," Pearson laughs. When she arrived, Waitrose was really beginning to come into its own as a food retailer. "We had far fewer stores and no EPoS systems, but the offer was focused heavily on good quality fresh food," Pearson says. "It still is, but our consumers have changed. It's my job to make sure we change with them to give them what they need." In 1994, Pearson took on the new role of central buyer for prepared meals, a new category that was showing all the signs of becoming a winner with consumers. "Those traditional Waitrose stalwarts were becoming more modern, but they were never going to compromise on taste and quality," she says. Pearson and her team set about introducing a wider range of branded ready meals and convenience foods and began to work on improving the range of own label products on the shelves. "Own label new product development took on a life of its own," she says. "We wanted to create a comprehensive and consistent offer to our shoppers, from meals to pre-seasoned meats, salads and vegetables." Pearson says the scope for creativity is one of the best aspects of the NPD role. "We thought about every changing aspect of consumers' lives," she says. "They travelled, so they wanted authentic Italian and Indian food. They ate out more, so we developed fantastic restaurant quality meals and components. They wanted healthy options, so we started on soups, fresh pasta and sauces.They wanted roast chickens, but they didn't want the hassle of cooking them, so we introduced rotisseries. "It's a game ­ we have to be one step ahead all the time," Pearson adds. Despite the diverse requirements of the modern Waitrose shopper, Pearson concedes that the largest area of growth lies in the traditional ready meal. And that's where cast-iron relationships with key suppliers come to the fore. Pearson cites the development of ethnic recipes as an example of the close working relationship that has emerged between development chef and buying team. "Consumers are experts on, say, Indian dishes," she says. "They're not fobbed off with anything other than the real thing." Waitrose's work means the stores now offer a range of 40 products from all over the continent. New areas remaining to be explored include the Americas and South and Central Asia. Nevertheless, Pearson recognises that Waitrose's "small but perfectly formed" ready meal range of 150 is small fry when it sits beside those of its rivals. "But then you have to remember there are some products that wouldn't suit our customers," she says. "Such as the conventional burger and chips package." Pearson and her team are constantly on the move, looking out for the right products. "We source our pizza bases from Italy and ship them to Geest, because customers want authentic Italian products," she reveals. Relationships with other buyers are important too. "They come up with ideas to make complementary products more attractive to consumers," she says. "Ready chopped and washed veg is one example." In February, Pearson took on responsibility for the entire Waitrose foodservice buying operation. "The scope is huge. We're developing our Special Order Service, our café assortment and the home meal replacement market." She envisages a time when the stores may offer a greater percentage of floorspace to food to go, ready meals and prepared foods, catering for customers on the go. There may even be a time when restaurant meals will be delivered to consumers' doors. And she says Waitrose is prepared for the challenges offered by new consumers. "Look at teenagers today ­ they're eating focaccia rolls and sushi," she says. "We can only dream about the needs they'll have as adult consumers. "Keeping them interested in food and predicting their needs ­ now there's a job for the 21st century." {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}