Booths supermarket chain in the north of England is a family-run firm which strongly believes in selling local produce. But now the big guns of Waitrose and Sainsbury are targeting its territory. Can it survive? Susan Wolk reports
Wednesday September 1, 2004
The Guardian, p. 8,
Marrying the features of grocery store and corner shop, a small supermarket chain in the north-west of England has achieved the feat - unusual in the current superstore world - of inspiring affection.
The family-owned firm of Booths, established since 1847, is different in several ways. Its 25 stores are much smaller than the average supermarket, making for a friendly ambience that is reinforced by the loyalty of employees, many of whom have been with the company for decades. More important, though, is its long-time practice of using local producers. About 25% of stock is locally sourced, making for fresher goods.
Until now, Booths has been safely entrenched as the quality choice in its patch across Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, still recognisably positioning its brand as founder Edwin Henry Booth defined it: "Sell[ing] the best goods available, in attractive stores, staffed with first class assistants". Some have called it "the Waitrose of the north" - a phrase that has just acquired more than a little irony: because the territorial upheaval currently under way in the supermarket business is bringing southern challengers into the north - and the one most likely to puncture Booths' fortunes is Waitrose.
Formerly, Safeway, Tesco and Waitrose dominated the south, while Asda and Morrisons reigned in the north, and Booths held court in the north-west. But Sainsbury has begun to move beyond its traditional south-eastern patch with the acquisition, earlier this year, of 54 Bells convenience stores in the north-east and 13 former Safeway supermarkets in the north. These were among 52 Safeway branches that came up for grabs because Morrisons was forced to offload them under competition rules as part of its takeover of 492 Safeway stores in spring of this year.
Waitrose picked up 18 of the surplus Safeway branches and is now on the march into Booths territory - not only geographically, but in customer profile, because shoppers at both stores are interested in upmarket food.
In June, Waitrose made its northern debut, opening its store at Sandbach outside Crewe. It is planning to open one a week from now until the end of October. At the end of 2003, Waitrose had just over 140 branches nationwide; by the end of this year, it intends to have 163, many of the new ones in the north. This will increase its selling space by 20%.
How does a regional food company survive in the face of an onslaught by the big boys? In part, by adopting some of the normal big-boy tactics involving image and size, to judge from the language of chairman Edwin Booth, a fifth generation member of the family. He talks about confronting the challenge by "re-engineering the brand to emphasise the human touch" because customers already perceive Booths as a large deli or self-service grocery store. So, "we are dropping the word supermarket from the logo, modernising the typeface and making it colourful." At the same time his group is "ratcheting up the pace of expansion" into new areas in north Yorkshire and the Scottish borders.
To the outside eye, however, what sets Booths apart is its local content. Chris Treble, fresh produce manager and buyer, believes its future will lie in offering good value quality products but highlighting exclusivity, with a range of specialist foods and ingredients that cannot easily be found elsewhere.
"We want people to feel they're walking into a specialist greengrocer's but with the convenience and comfort zone of being a supermarket too," he adds. "We want their senses to be knocked back by the colour, choice, different textures and the rich smell of the earth from the loose potatoes banked up on the shelf. It's retailing on a human scale."
Supporting local farmers and reducing food miles are issues that Booths' customers, 78% of whom are over 45, feel strongly about. Indeed, many are related to farmers and growers. "The emotional side is key. Shoppers want to be connected to the provenance of their food," Treble says, "and there's no question that many would go out of business if they couldn't supply us."
Booths draws its local products from the four north-western counties where it is based. These feature in the whole range of foodstuffs, including biscuits and drinks, but the greatest proportion are perishable and fresh food items, such as dairy products, meat and poultry.
Treble believes that being small makes Booths able to operate flexibly with hundreds of local, small suppliers. He points to its relationship with an arable farmer and vegetable grower, Peter Ascroft of Worthingtons Farm, near Tarleton, Lancashire. "Take cauliflowers. The weather dictates whether they're scarce or there's a glut. Peter let us know that he had a huge number maturing at once, so we organised a special fortnight's promotion to shift his stock," says Treble. "The quality was top notch, they were pitched at a good price and there was plenty of volume. They flew off the shelves, and a crop doesn't go to waste."
Not to be outdone, Waitrose is raising the local banner over its six new stores in Booths territory, aiming to feature distinctive foods with local provenance, traceability, integrity and, in many cases, tradition. To qualify as "local" these must be produced within a 30-mile radius of the store. Under the chain's locally produced initiative - whereby small producers wishing to supply a multiple retailer can do so without having to cover the whole store network - Waitrose says it is able to guarantee a market even if a producer is able to supply only one branch.
Mark Price, Waitrose's director of selling and marketing, says that its local foods cut across all categories and that up to 100 lines at any one time can come from local suppliers. "Some of our cheeses, for example, are produced within only a few miles from that branch and only that shop will stock them."
"We pride ourselves on being the 'food shop for foodies'. We're very straightforward about what we are."
The independent grocers who once were the main buyers of local goods have fallen from 62,000 in 1977 to 23,960 in 2001 and are still in decline. Robert Kitching, owner of Leagram Organic Cheese which supplies five varieties of its local cheese exclusively to Booths, states flatly: "Without Booths, I wouldn't exist - they're my bread and butter. They don't tie me down with red tape and they don't chase me all the time. All my cheeses are handmade, so if I need to take time off for a break, they're prepared to wait until I'm ready to supply them again."
Other local products stocked by the chain include organic multi-coloured eggs supplied by Shropshire-based the Chicken Came First. Clare Draper and her partner Tony Chick supplied Booths' supermarkets with eggs laid by their 250 speckled hybrid and rare breed hens for the first time at Easter this year. Each box might include chocolate brown, snowy white, china blue and even olive green-coloured eggs of varying sizes.
Their premium price of £1.79 for six did not seem to deter customers. The lunchtime delivery often sold out the same day, according to Phil Godwin, Booths' fresh and chilled food buyer, who has been with the company for 28 years. And since July, the Holker Hall estate owned by Lord and Lady Cavendish has been supplying only Booths supermarkets with its salt marsh lamb from the Cartmel peninsula in Cumbria.
Such specialist products have become weapons in the armoury that Booths is about to test against its new rival. Alongside the chairman's "ratcheting up", of course: in November, the company will open its biggest supermarket, a 20,000 sq ft food emporium in Kendal, with a 50-cover gourmet restaurant and local speciality food stalls on the lower ground floor. The battle is joined.