In there for the duration Waitrose suppliers must be first class and share its philosophy. But once taken up, they are there for the long term, as director of buying Steven Esom tells Karen Dempsey You won't hear words like "squeeze" or "margins" in a Waitrose buying department. For Waitrose, it's not a question of being the biggest or the cheapest. On the contrary, says director of buying Steven Esom, quality, consistency and innovation are the three tenets on which the Waitrose buying philosophy is based. As far as quality goes, it is arguably easier for Waitrose to play the quality card because of its size. Esom says: "Larger retailers may be restrained by their size and the sheer amount of product they have to get in, day in day out. There's only so much product that is the best quality. So we use our size and positioning to make sure we pay an economic price for that quality ­ and both get passed on to our customers." This obsession with quality and the pursuit of "food excellence" is what characterises all Waitrose's dealings with suppliers and customers. The life of a buyer at Waitrose means the relentless search for the best. Esom ensures his team are always challenging themselves ­ and not just measuring the operation against their UK supermarket colleagues. They travel extensively to bring back interesting culinary ideas from overseas and they listen to customers who alert them to new products they have encountered on their own travels. Esom has established a programme that introduces buyers to pre-eminent people across the business to constantly challenge their perceptions. So to be a Waitrose supplier you have to be best in class ­ and you have to look on it not as a client-supplier relationship but as a long-term business partnership. Waitrose's supplier base is just 25% the size it was when Esom joined the company five years ago. But once you're in, you're in. "It's not about finding the largest suppliers. It's about finding those who match our overall business aims and philosophies, who are sympathetic to our customers' needs and share the same passion for quality and innovation." And consistency, of course. That is at the heart of the way Waitrose ­ as set out by the John Lewis Partnership ­ does business. "The key to the success of products within Waitrose and our reputation is the consistency across the business," says Esom. He deplores the short-termism of other supermarkets' approach to suppliers. Waitrose is straightforward and long-term in its supplier dealings. It wants suppliers with whom it can share a vision and develop long-term plans ­ particularly as regards new product development. It has an active policy of nurturing small suppliers, even if they have small facilities and need a lot of technical input. "Waitrose is not overbearing and we understand the situations they face. Without our suppliers we wouldn't have the quality of business we've got today ­ and they, too, have the opportunity to grow their business with ours," says Esom. This goes for the processing/manufacturing end as well as the supply of raw materials. Waitrose is proactive in addressing the traceability issue in the milk business. It is building up a relationship with farms and working with the highest quality producers, which ensures it knows from which farm the milk comes. On the meat side, Waitrose is working with farmers to improve the quality of cattle and it has breeding programmes in place for the major species. Esom says: "You have to take an extremely long-term view as it could take five to 10 years to develop the livestock characteristics we're aiming for." That goes for meat-based ready meals too, as Esom aims to ensure the meat used in beefburgers or lasagne is as good as the meat sold at service counters. The approach to organic food, says Esom, is an illustration of Waitrose's sourcing philosophies and where food excellence comes into play. Again, the philosophy is not to get the largest number of lines but look at the quality and variety it offers customers. It has set up an organic assistance scheme that gives long-term help in the conversion process, particularly to small suppliers. It takes a crop in conversion and pays suppliers a premium from day one. Then, when they convert, they get the full organic premium, which gives them the cash input they need to run their business. A web site is being developed with advice for people who wish to convert, which will allow organic farmers throughout the country to tap into ideas and innovation. Waitrose helps those farmers wanting to convert to organic production to meet buyers, which Esom says can reassure farmers and give them confidence that Waitrose is in organic for the long term. "It's a long struggle, but organic food helps us to build that bridge between supermarkets and farmers," he says. That said, one of Waitrose's concerns at present it that it cannot source enough UK-produced organic product. It currently has to import 70% of its organic product from overseas. Not that it's happy about that. It is doing what it can with smaller suppliers to form producer groups that club together to give a sizeable supply of product. But where possible, Waitrose never goes for the easier option of sourcing product from overseas just because it's cheaper. Esom says that Waitrose sources virtually all its meat from the UK. And it is working with producers to help extend growing seasons for fruit and vegetables. He says: "In the past it's been easier for the industry to go over to Holland or France and not really put the amount of work into the UK horticultural sector it needed. "But with this commitment to getting UK-sourced product wherever possible, we've had to look back at our supplier base and try to find ways of working with them. "The good news is that it gives UK suppliers a lot more certainty, but I realise not every supermarket can do this." What Waitrose can also accommodate on its shelves is an encouraging selection of locally sourced product. Its Okehampton store in Devon, for example, carries local cream and milk; in Wales its stores carry Welsh products; and the vast majority of Waitrose shops carry a number of cheeses produced in their own localities. So what's Esom's advice to small suppliers wanting to break into Waitrose? "Pick up the phone. It's as simple as that," he says. His team of buyers is tasked with finding new suppliers to help inject the regular doses of innovation on which Waitrose's reputation depends. "It's possible to supply a handful of shops so suppliers don't have to think they must supply huge amounts of product that compromises their standards. That's the last thing we want them to do," says Esom. "These small suppliers are essential to the growth of our business because usually they're the most entrepreneurial and very much at the leading edge of innovation. We want to harness that and bring their enthusiasm and innovation into our business." Any line has about 18 months' life and then it will be reviewed, often with redesigned packaging and reformulated recipes. Esom says: "The market moves on so quickly ­ and that creates a huge opportunity to increase the quality and deliver more value to the customer. "Customers demand that food is the highest standard so far as quality and consistency are concerned and it has to be innovative and presented in an appealing way. We can't let our guard down. We have to maintain the quality lead in the marketplace because there is always someone looking over our shoulder." {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}