"There was an awful lot of cake we were visiting between 20 to 25 bakeries every day to look for new ideas," says Rebecca Adams, cake and bread buyer for M&S. "It was very intense. We came back with a lot of direction for how to continue to expand, but we also all came back exhausted!"
The recent development trip to New York, on which Adams invited a cake supplier, an in-store bakery supplier and a bread supplier, was part of M&S' research into how to continue to build upon the huge success of its American cake range, which first launched last year with cupcakes and continued this year with whoopie pies.
"M&S is always looking for new bakery concepts, and our brief was to see how we could take inspiration and identify trends from New York bakeries," explains Adams. "The last time M&S was in New York was in 2008, and that was when we came back knowing that we simply had to introduce cupcakes to stores. It worked last year was a big, big year for us, and cupcakes are easily our best-sellers. But now we have to move forward, and find out how we can carry cupcakes further that's what we can learn from New York."
Taking suppliers on the occasional development trip is a good example of how Adams likes to do business. "For me, it's about building relationships. I work in partnership with all my suppliers to make sure it's a profitable process for both parties and, for that, we both need to understand each other," she says. "In New York, for example, having time away with three suppliers was a chance to build upon our business relations. My suppliers learnt more about M&S and understood what we were looking for, while it also allowed me a chance to understand their businesses and their needs. It's crucial for both sides to get to grips with that first and foremost."
But when it comes to understanding M&S customers, Adams says it's hard to identify just one type of consumer. "We really do cater for everyone, so we always have to think about which group of customers a new product might be for. For instance, our older customers in, say, our Dover store, are unlikely to go out for their weekly shop and come back with cupcakes unlike our younger customers in our London stores. That's why we have so much variety, from traditional ranges such as slab cakes and sponges, to much more innovative products like whoopie pies."
As far as its traditional cakes go, M&S says it isn't looking to change or enhance the range. "In all my eight years at M&S, we haven't ever changed our slab cakes and sponges; we've certainly never changed anything about our Victoria sponge," says Adams. "Why meddle with what is already perfect?"
However, Adams says suppliers can use the traditional cakes as a benchmark for what is expected from M&S suppliers. "Cakes like our Victoria sponge are what every innovative product should aspire to. They act as a stamp of our quality standard to deliver to customers what they want."
One example of a recent M&S innovation is its new Dippers & Dunkers range an updated take on its existing tubs of mini bites. The new range lets you dip, say, a mini brownie into chocolate frosting and then coat it in chocolate drops. "It's real sit-on-the-sofa type food," says Adams, who explains that the idea for Dippers & Dunkers came about as a result of direct customer surveys, which revealed customers loved the idea when put to them. "It's an example of what M&S likes to do take something that we already do and innovate to make it even better."
When it comes to competition, Adams keeps her eye on Waitrose and Sainsbury's, but is quietly confident that M&S remains ahead of the game. "Of course, everyone is always doing something new, but I cannot think of a time when I've seen a Waitrose product and thought, 'We really missed out there.' That has just not happened."
Rather than competition, Adams says her biggest challenge is to create a commercially viable product and for that, she works closely with M&S cake product developer Chris Seaby and technologist Jim Hawkridge. "Often Chris will have identified a trend, Jim will have ideas on what we can do with it, and my role is to figure out how to do that realistically, in terms of picking the right supplier and fixing costs."
For this, Adams will work her way through proposals from new suppliers, who have already emailed with details on their product. "If the product is right for M&S in terms of being high-quality or is along the lines of what we've already thought about, then I'll set up a meeting. The three of us will visit the supplier's site, look at the factory and discuss what they can offer."
Adams also stresses that while M&S is such a large business there are over 600 stores and she is responsible for the bakery content in each one the store is as encouraging and open to small suppliers as big ones. "We've got a few cake suppliers that are tiny family-run businesses one produces all our speciality cakes for Ireland, for example. Just because a supplier is small, it doesn't mean I won't consider them."
Rebecca Adams at a glance
CV: First joined M&S on a business placement year in food merchandising, as part of her degree in textile management. After graduating from the University of Manchester in 2002, she applied to M&S for a full-time position, and was accepted as a trainee buyer in fresh produce. Upon completing her training, she moved to become buyer for the 'Celebrations' department, overseeing Christmas lines, and then switched to bakery, where she now manages breads and cakes.
The role: "I'd never thought about working with food while studying, but after my first placement working at M&S, I realised I really enjoyed it. There's something very satisfying about working with food; if I didn't love my job, I wouldn't do it."
Pastimes: "My other half and I live in Wimbledon and have a little boat; on weekends we like to take it out on the river and relax with friends. I very rarely bake at home!"
Getting listed: Adams receives letters and emails every day from suppliers and says she is very open to suppliers making the first contact. "Sending us an example of the product is always helpful."
Suppliers' notes: "Be prepared to communicate I'll always call or email suppliers every week to keep up to speed with what they are doing. I like to work in partnership with my suppliers, and it's important for me to understand where they are coming from, as it is for them to really understand everything about M&S and what the customers expect in terms of quality."
Tips for the future: "Our trip to New York has given us a lot to think about, and we have plenty of new ideas in mind about how to continue with the American baking trend, which proved so successful for us this year. We will also be expanding the bread range substantially."