Waitrose basic brand boosts recession sales

"Essential Waitrose" - the supermarket's value range - has helped boost its fresh produce sales during the recession, with soft fruit even enjoying a record year so far in 2010.

Mary Vizoso, Waitrose director of food technology told delegates at the Fruit Focus NFU and Syngenta Bioline forum last week that the supermarket had "seen some very strong growth". She added: "I see every reason that sales growth will continue".

She said: "We are now leading the market in growth on like-for-like sales. Waitrose's share of the fresh produce market was six per cent this time a year ago compared to 6.5 per cent today."

Vizoso also reassured growers that, while consumers were paying less for Essential Waitrose products, their returns had not suffered because the supermarket "took a cut" and not the growers.

She said: "When the recession started we had a look at what we were doing. We knew that our strength was that customers understood the quality of the Waitrose brand but they had a perception about our prices. So we took on our everyday lines, ring-fenced the quality of all of them and put them under one Essential Waitrose brand. And then we invested a lot in the price. It's Waitrose quality at prices you would have not expected in April 2009."

She added: "It's sustainable. It will absolutely remain. It's hugely successful but this line existed before the recession - we just made it easier to find and further reduced the prices."

Vizoso also revealed some of the things Waitrose growers are doing to improve its procurement strategy.

For example, the supermarket currently has a "war on waste" whereby it is encouraging all of its suppliers to identify areas in the supply chain where crop is lost.

"Where is it happening - in the field? At harvesting? Proportionately, there's a lot more waste that's thrown away in the supply chain than at the consumer end," said Vizoso.

As part of its procurement strategy, Waitrose is also looking at how to better cope with crop "flushes" so that fruit does not go to waste when large amounts of certain crops - such as the influx of British cherries arriving in supermarkets now - become available at short notice.

It is also looking at how to prevent the "yo-yo" ordering system that sees supermarket buyers respond to factors such as the weather. Vizoso said: "It's raining but the branch is full of fruit, so we pull back on the fruit orders, and then the sun is out again."

Waitrose is also bracing itself for global issues such as reduced water availability, population increases and the expected rise in obesity levels that will all affect the supply chain in future.

"We are seeing a build up of middle classes. From a retailer and grower point of view, this means more people will be eating more protein. This requires more grain so we will need more water."

"The amount of water per capita is under 25 per cent of what it was in 1960. That's a hugely frightening statistic. So we have to find ways of being much more vigorous in how we use it and not waste it."

When NFU Board for Horticulture and Potatoes chairman Sarah Pettitt questioned Vizoso on the Government's pledge to introduce a supermarket ombudsman, she said she supported it fully even though she feared it could lead to increased bureaucracy.

"We believe it's a perfectly acceptable thing to do. But our job is to make sure that you do not need an ombudsman, she said." I would hope that any of our growers would feel perfectly happy to pick up the phone and raise any concerns. But if anything does go wrong, then an ombudsman is the right way to go."

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