Booths Supermarkets was established in 1847 and celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. It has 26 stores across Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria and Yorkshire, with a company turnover of £230m.

Nearly half its bread products are sourced from the four counties in which it trades and it has 71 types of speciality bread in its range.

Leigh Anne Carr, a bakery/bread buyer at Booths, is responsible for bread, in-store bakeries, cakes, home baking and biscuits. She says: "I have been at Booths for 15 years, since I was 20. I started as an assistant, covering all departments, then moved into buying and became a buyer’s assistant. For the past nine years, I have been a bakery buyer.

"In terms of bakery turnover, we are seeing 30% growth a week year-on-year, with retail sales at £1.8m per quarter."

The key bread brands it stocks include Warbur­tons, Allied Bakeries, British Bakeries, Roberts, Waterfields, Greenhalgh’s, Bells of Lazonby, Village Bakery, Bryson’s, Staff of Life and Kolos.

freshly baked

"Customers are mostly female and our typical customer is aged 45-plus," says Carr. "Customers are looking for more speciality breads these days; they are steering away from the dull white or brown bread towards appreciating different flavours. They want to buy bread as they did years ago and the introduction of our freshly baked, unwrapped bread has been hugely successful."

She says one of the challenges faced by smaller supermarkets is that, for example, Booths sometimes has to wait until a larger multiple agrees to list a product before a producer will supply it. "Some suppliers prefer to have the backing of a multiple, as it makes it worthwhile for them to produce a product," she says. "This means we may want to stock a particular line, but we have to wait until the supplier is happy to provide it."

Booths has more than 71 speciality breads. The Ukrainian bakery Kolos supplies one of its stronger ranges, yet the company itself is small. "Occasionally, as a retailer, it can work the other way round and we can be too big for some of our smaller suppliers, so we struggle to keep up with customer demand on some of the lines we stock. From year to year, it’s important that we keep our products interesting, as well as following any dietary trends."

Carr says that, having been bakery buyer for nine years, she has very good, open relationships with suppliers. "This means we can look at alternatives and offer support where we can. It’s always nice to taste new products and it’s satisfying when you’ve been working with a supplier to develop a new product and the project comes to fruition and it’s on the shelf. I taste about 40 products a week. Some of the smaller suppliers will come to us asking for our advice and opinion on a particular product before they bring it to the market, even though it might not necessarily be for Booths to stock."

Carr says she sources new products by attending ’meet the buyer’ events and working closely with regional food groups such as North West Fine Foods. "We also attend exhibitions and generally keep an eye on what’s about. Suppliers also contact us with new products."

Staff of Life an artisan baker in Kendal, Cumbria, has been one of the most successful suppliers to the store.

"All the breads are hand-made, unique to Staff of Life and unwrapped. They were originally only stocked in our Artisan restaurant, which is situated underneath our Kendal store," says Carr.

"However, we have just rolled out six breads from the range to a further nine of our stores, with a view to extending it to 18 stores. The brand is performing really well and it’s been down to all the work that has gone into the initiative, in terms of investment, logistics and changes in-store to make sure the product is displayed well.

"I believe if a product is right for one store, it’s right for all stores. We organise in-store tastings to encourage customers to buy something different from their usual product or to trade up. The most important thing is that it’s right for the customer, in terms of quality, costings and logistics."

Carr says the supermarket recently listed a strawberry fruit loaf from one of the bigger brands. "I wasn’t convinced it would take off with our customers, but thought that the marketing and advertising given it by the brand would help it sell. Unfortunately, it wasn’t right for our audience and it’s been delisted.

artisan products

"Delisting a product is always a last resort," she adds. "If we believe in a product, we try to make it work and explore every avenue, but sometimes business sense says you have to delist and that can be hard, especially if it is a smaller supplier."

She says she is particularly interested in artisan products. "But if anyone out there makes a thinly sliced bread, I’d definitely be interested. The demise of this product was very unpopular with our customers.

"In terms of new suppliers, I would recommend they familiarise themselves with our current range, our stores, customer base and Booths’ ethos.

"I wouldn’t be interested in any ’me-too’ products, where it’s just the same as another brand but under a different name. As with any retailer, space is at a premium, so any product we stock has to be different from the norm and have a unique selling point." n