They've been fully converted Need someone to convert a batch of Somerfields into slick, fully fledged Waitrose operations - fast? Bill Bishop's your man. The head of selling servies spoke to Tim Palmer If you want to know how to go about opening 11 new supermarkets in as many weeks, just ask Bill Bishop. As head of selling services, he was given the tricky task of managing the conversion of the Somerfield stores bought by Waitrose ­ and he's the first to admit it hasn't been easy. There was, says Bishop, a "huge amount of stretching of the business". That's an understatement. Over the course of six weeks, Waitrose had to handle taking in the Somerfields at the rate of three a week, with two in the final week. Once the handover began in April, the stores started closing for between six and 10 weeks to be refitted so that they could reopen as fully fledged Waitrose supermarkets. And just to make life even more fraught, Bishop and his team were only allowed to go into the newly acquired stores four weeks before closure ­ once the formalities of the sale had been completed. To ensure the conversion went as smoothly as possible, Bishop set up a project team, comprising heads of department, to look at how best to tackle issues ranging from the training of former Somerfield staff to the actual revamping of the stores. Although getting the fixtures and fittings right was vitally important, Bishop says one of his biggest headaches was ensuring there was as little stock as possible left in the stores on the closing day. "We only had a 40% match between their stock and ours," he explains. But it was people issues that really topped the agenda throughout the conversion process, says Bishop. For starters, each new member of staff had to be interviewed under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations to make sure they were happy with their new contracts. And then they had to start the process of being re-educated the Waitrose way in everything from the Partnership's culture to the products. This re-education process has also involved taking Somerfield managers out of the business and training them in Waitrose systems and procedures for several months, while seconding up to 10 Waitrose managers to each newly acquired branch. "That has increased the pressure on the rest of the team phenomenally," says Bishop. "But I have to make sure we have the people to do the work and the new sites get the back up they need." The priority throughout has been to ensure that when the new stores open they look and operate like Waitrose supermarkets from day one. No mean feat, says Bishop, when you consider how dedicated Waitrose is to good old fashioned service. "We are genuine about our dealings with consumers and about achieving a good level of service on the shop floor," he claims. That means keeping close tabs on everything from the fresh food counters that form such a strong part of the Waitrose offer to the Quick Check self-scanning and Quick Pay payment systems being installed in stores. Waitrose branch managers are helped in this task by their Bible' ­ seven two-inch thick volumes that describe how a branch operates, from how to fill a shelf to recruiting people. Bishop proudly points out this will be online in all branches by the autumn. Bishop says Waitrose places great store in every aspect of customer service. "We will provide packers and unloaders and will carry bags out to the car," he says. "We will refund and replace if customers are not satisfied. "If they are holding a party and want glasses, we offer them free without deposit ­ and we can loan other items. If someone buys a big salmon from us we can provide them with a fish kettle." He adds: "We are saying to consumers you can shop with us any way you wish' and offer a complete package. There's no need to go elsewhere. "We have to be able to offer all these services. That is the real challenge. People want it all today and they won't wait. As they become more affluent, they want the convenience." The stores, too, get the full works when it comes to service. Bishop's selling support function means his team is the focal point at head office for branches if they have a problem. "They ring the support desk with a range of problems, such as the tills running slowly or fires or even floods. If we can't solve a problem directly we know a man who can." {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}