Audience participation

05 June, 2009
Listening to customers and reacting to their needs at a local level is the key to BB's approach to its market. And it was just that ethic that bagged it The Customer Focus Award at last year's BIA. Georgi Gyton reports
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Despite stemming from an Australian concept, BB's Coffee & Muffins appears British in every sense, and certainly caters for our love of tea and cake. But that's not all it offers. Producing freshly baked goods on a daily basis and the ability to understand its customers' needs are just some of the reasons it won The Customer Focus Award, sponsored by BakeMark UK, at last year's Baking Industry Awards.

The BB's concept came to the UK in 1997, when the first shop opened in Maidenhead, Berkshire. Since then, another 186 have opened. Around 28 are company-operated in the UK and 12 in Ireland, and the firm has around 80 franchise partners, which make up around 80% of its stores. Its main office is in Limerick, Ireland and it has an administration base in Hemel Hempstead. By this summer, it will also have a UK office base in London.

BB's was originally focused on operating in the shopping centre sector, explains retail and brands director Michele Young, who has been with the company for over four years. "But, in the last four years, we've expanded out of the traditional shopping centre environment and into areas such as DIY stores, petrol forecourts and exhibition centres. We also do external catering for sporting and music events."

The focus of the business is not simply to stock products and try to persuade customers to buy them, but to provide bakery products that the company is confident customers want. Young says the business is pitched at the mass market in order to appeal to all tastes and ages. Of course, different regions bring variations in customer demographics, but Young says they tailor the ranges in each store, as well as having a core range sold by all stores. "Ultimately, it's about making sure you understand local audiences," says Young. "We don't push the stores to stock items if they are simply not selling."

The outlets offer a lot of choice, and the product ranges are continually scrutinised for development or additions. Young says BB's has a library of around 70 muffin recipes, and the range is alternated throughout the year, allowing for seasonal variations. "The heavy chocolate flavours don't do so well in the summer as in the autumn and winter, and the fruitier ones tend to go well in the summer months," she explains. "Then you get the regional preferences - for example, cherry & coconut muffins are big up north and the sticky toffee pudding variety is popular everywhere, especially with women."

There are also polka dot muffins and mini muffins aimed at kids, as Young says the outlets often get a high percentage of parents coming in with their children.

Young says the company has certainly grown its food sales considerably over the last few years. "We're not out there to claim the coffee guru title; we want to be recognised for high-quality affordable food," she says. Before the recession hit, Young says they had a track record of between 20-25 new store openings a year. However, she admits that this year the figure will be more like 10. "We're focusing on the existing portfolio in terms of how we can enhance or improve trading potential," she says. "We have also taken the company outside the shopping centre environment and we have some proven success there as well."

Young explains it is not due to market saturation that BB's has moved out of its shopping centre home . "There is still plenty of scope to develop in shopping centres, but there are also opportunities elsewhere." She says BB's has been the only shopping centre outlet of its kind for the past 10 years, but now other food businesses are looking at it as an option, so consequently, BB's is looking to put its muffins in more than one basket.

Use of research

As to why BB's won the award, the judges were impressed with the range of methods used to research customers' requirements and the way the findings were used to adapt the product range. Young says the company get thousands of hits on its website and tries to involve its customers, using competitions such as 'How do you eat your muffin?' or asking what their idea of muffin heaven is. Consumers then have the chance to win a month's supply of muffins.

"Because we were looking at The Customer Focus Award, we really pinned it back to what we had learned over the previous 12-18 months and how we'd applied that to our thinking for new product development and improvements, as well as making sure what we do is relevant," explains Young. "We get a lot of flavour ideas from customers, which all get put into the melting pot, and we use feedback from our franchisees as well as looking at what's happening in the wider marketplace."

She put forward the application to the awards because BB's operates 187 mini bakeries, and she wanted to reinforce what's different about them as a concept, and to be recognised by the industry for baking fresh products in-store, every day. The staff arrive at around 6.30am, and prepare the muffin mixes before the first batch goes in the oven at around 8.15am. The oven itself is situated behind the counter and acts as a focal point, says Young.

"It felt right for us to go for that kind of industry award, because we'd done so much work, together with our supply partners and our stores and franchisees, on developing different areas of the product range and capitalising on what was happening in the wider market and how that applied to us in terms of baking," explains Young. "We thought we had an opportunity and certainly came across some big competition; winning was a great achievement for all the staff." She believes it was the time and effort spent finding out about customers' needs and implementing them in the BB's Coffee & Muffins plan, that swung it for them.

Capitalising on their win

The individual stores displayed a counter message after the company had won, and BB's used the win as an endorsement and on marketing and press materials. "With some of the new opportunities coming our way, it's very much an advantage for us to say that we're an award-winner. We've also got a couple of university concessions off the back of the award."

Since winning the award, BB's has been developing some new products and has worked with its suppliers to create a range of four different wholegrain muffins, due to customer demand for healthier products, which are working their way into stores now, says Young. "We've been doing a lot more segmentation work, both on the products and customer understanding to make sure, especially in this climate, that the stores have the right products in the right stores at the right time." It appears that what customers of BB's want, they get.

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=== View on the night ===

"It was great - very glamorous and lovely to meet Kate Thornton. We also won a bottle of Champagne on one of the tables. It's nice to meet people from the industry and to network as well. The way it was hosted was also good - in that the other finalists also went up on stage to collect a certificate. It was an excellent way of acknowledging all the award nominees."

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=== Reaction to winning ===

"It was one of those 'oh my god' moments. Everyone was really pleased. It was an achievement for all the team and the stores more than anything, as they're the ones that make the products every day and can be proud of what they do. The win was very well received by all."





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