Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Ugly Fruit And Carbon Footprints

Earlier this year, my favourite supermarket won the accolade of being voted the UK's favourite retailer, beating its sister store John Lewis. Market research company Verdict asked 6,000 shoppers to rate shops on range, convenience, quality, price, service, ambiance, facilities and layout. Waitrose came out top, department store John Lewis second, Swedish furniture giant IKEA third and online retailer Amazon fourth. And one month later, Which?, the largest and most highly respected consumer body in the UK, ranked Waitrose as the top food supermarket for the second year running, in their retail store survey. When you consider the poor reputation of supermarkets in the UK, that was no mean feat.

Another Waitrose store opensIt doesn't surprise me one bit. Every time I visit my local branch in Holloway Road it's a pleasure to shop. In part, of course, that's because the higher quality and consequent higher prices act as a social filter. You don't come across many Hackney chav teenage mums f-ing and blinding at their multi-fathered troop of kids in Waitrose. If that sounds snobbish, believe me that's because you don't live in Hackney. My dad insists on visiting the local bulk discount store LIDL before noon if at all possible, because in his words "it's like a scene from Dawn Of The Dead in the afternoon when the zombies go out to shop."

Anyway, there are many great reasons other than gentility to recommend a visit. Top of my personal list is one product that I've never seen anywhere else and acts as my very own Waitrose magnet: Lingham's Ginger & Garlic Chilli Sauce. It's one thing I just can't live without. But of more general interest is something I've mentioned in blog posts on more than one occasion - their ethical approach to product sourcing. Owned by its employees rather than by outside shareholders, Waitrose's buying strategy revolves around the pursuit of 'food excellence', with ethical buying policies at the heart of the company's offer. Waitrose works closely with its suppliers, helping them to develop contingency plans that will support them in the event of crop failure or other supply problems, and guaranteeing the best possible quality standards and continuity in local supply. Free range and organic products make up an increasing proportion of their sales and they work hard to ensure that all potentially endangered produce is sourced from sustainable stocks.

And, at last, they are taking a stand against the massive waste brought about by traditional supermarket rejection of fruit and vegetables that fail to make Class 1 status:

Waitrose is very strong in the more affluent AB and C1 socio-economic consumer groups, who account for 60% of spend in Waitrose as compared with 47% of the food market overall. And an amazing 80% of Waitrose spend is accounted for by households with no children living at home, making Waitrose the Saga of the supermarket world.

What triggered me to write this post was a fly-on-the wall feature on BBC Radio 4 the other day which my dad alerted me to and which I subsequently downloaded from the BBC website. In it, reporter Jon Manel spent the day shadowing Mark Price, the new MD of Waitrose. Although he took name dropping to a new level by accepting a mobile phone call about BSE from Environment Secretary Hilary Benn during the recording, Price came across as a very honest and sincere person dedicated to improving the lives of suppliers, shoppers, supermarket staff and food animals. "We see ourselves as different", he asserted, claiming to target "foodies". I'm not totally sure this is a compliment to those of us who shop there. The policy must have been successful, as The Guild Of Fine Food has recently attacked Waitrose for threatening the livelihood of their members, despite the fact that the supermarket takes only 4% of UK food market share. I guess you can't really win. If you sell cheap and nasty food you threaten corner shops and if you sell top quality food you threaten delicatessens.

A long way to transport animalsI do like to see good investigative journalism, however, and the BBC caught Mr. Price out on one issue. Wanting to ensure the highest quality standards in slaughterhousing as well as efficiency of operation, Waitrose operates only one single centre to handle all of their dairy farmers across the country. So the "locally sourced" beef from Hampshire in the south of England to Angus in the north of Scotland travels huge round trips to Yorkshire for slaughter, before returning to its local supermarket outlets. You can see Waitrose's argument, but you can't fail to see the irony in these massive food miles. I'm sure they'll pick up on this and do something to resolve the situation.

All in all, there's no getting away from the fact that Waitrose is an excellent, ethical supplier of food. Despite the nostalgic dreams of some consumers, we're not going to see the end of supermarkets and a return to street corner outlets. But I'd like to see a world where the supermarkets operate alongside local small shops and specialist suppliers, rather than trying to monopolise the industry and drive everyone else out of business. I think Waitrose would be happy to settle for this. I just wish that every other supermarket would take the same view.


Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Great post and as for the Linghams - I'm addicted to the stuff. I've got friends and family pretty hooked too!

Trig said...

So I'm not the only one!

dan said...


a couple of things:

Firstly, of the great Lingham's sauce, you can get that most places nowadays. Maybe not Lidl.

Secondly, Snob!

Thirdly, I know that Waitrose are better than Sainsburys and Tescos and ASDA but you shouldn't be under any illusions that they have any concern about the success or failure of independent retail outlets.

They are known to visit local delis and the like to find out what they are selling lots of and then start selling that cheaper in their store.

Can you blame them? Maybe not, hey are in business and smaller shops use the same tactics. But the practice of undercutting smaller independent retailers is always going to small guys under a lot of pressure.

If this pressure causes those small retailers to close then our highstreets are going to end up in a truly sorry state. If they don't already.

Karen said...

I agree, although I live half a world away from you, it's not often that we see any small supermarkets here--especially in California. The only places that we see 'smaller' stores are in the bigger cities like Downtown Los Angeles where there are people are serious about food. Unfortunately, I only get larger supermarkets.

The only place I can really think of that might possibly qualify as a smaller business is the Whole Foods Market here-- but I think they too are trying to get bigger. They are an organic market but there are only like 10 markets out there.

Oh yeah, food discrimination is just pathetic, hahaha.

Jeanne said...

OMG, that description of Lidl is just spot-on (speaking as a proud resident of Newham!!) Our local Lidl is one of the most weirdly depressing places around - all these newly-arrived Eastern-Europen types who speak no English and keep glancing furtively over their shoulders as if they are just waiting for the heavy hand of Customs and Immigration to come down on their shoulder. And then, rather than pay the £1 deposit for the trolleys, they find an empty cardboard box (probably liberated from the cheap tinned baked beans stand) and stuff all their groceries in there to take to the till. You can't make that stuff up...

Trig said...

Jeanne - In my local Lidl it's not so much immigration-dodging Eastern Europeans as the local loonies.

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