When you’re trying to steer a premium course through the choppy retail waters of what is, arguably, Britain’s most commoditised food category, it’s good to know there’s a steady hand on the tiller. But then running a tight ship comes as second nature to Waitrose bakery buyer James Dickson, formerly of the navy.

"It’s not so much that it’s boring. People just don’t spend a huge amount of time on bread. The frustration is that you know what you could offer, but the people buying it don’t necessarily want it!"

That means existing and potential suppliers really need to think carefully if they’re to excite any interest beyond Dickson’s stock-in-trade fresh crusties, speciality wrapped breads, and pre-packed rolls, not to mention the in-store bake-off for which he’s responsible.

Take a recent foray into products made with regional flours on the serve-over counter - an obvious fit, you might think, with Waitrose shoppers. So did Dickson. "We launched a range of round cobs with named regional flours. We really felt they were so fresh and new and interesting that people would buy into them. But they didn’t because they were round: they didn’t fit into the toaster and they didn’t make sandwiches. "That one surprised me because I thought they were fairly safe, day-to-day products, but it taught me that functionality is an early buffer in that category. In others, you can push harder and harder by degrees."

Of all his customers, it’s the crusty bread buyer whose habits are hardest to break. "It tends to be bought by older consumers who do not thank you for changing it," he says.

That’s not the case with the DINKY (dual-income-no-kids) globetrotters, who have developed a taste for the exotic. But authenticity is key and pale imitations just won’t do. The successful launch of Waitrose focaccia, introduced in August last year, proved the point.

"Bakery has too short a shelf-life to be imported, and that has been part of focaccia’s problem. It’s difficult to make it the way the Italians make it. It is only now that it has got close to how it is made in its own country that focaccia is taking over from ciabatta.

"The wrapped category in general is on the march," he says. "It encompasses some of the most interesting, new and innovative areas and it has so much going for it. It appeals to younger consumers and, as it matures, it has potential to grow. The Italian side of things is where it’s developing."

Having recently completed a series of major category reviews, Dickson and his team are now engaged on one of their annual interim make-overs, during which they ask already nominated suppliers to pitch in with comments and suggestions on how to move a fixture forward.

"Major reviews take place every two or three years - speciality breads was last year - and an interim review every other year, when we work with existing suppliers. It’s a consideration to the people we already have. If you constantly bring in new people,

the ones who are already there find it disconcerting."

The Waitrose pool is kept deliberately small, with as few as two or three nominated suppliers out of 10 in a category, but that’s not to say new national, and even regional, bakers, can’t grab a thick slice of the action. But, be warned: you’ll have to polish more than your buttons when you go on parade at "Port Bracknell".

"If I were doing a major review this year, I

would be saying: ’Come and

see me; tell me what you can do.’ At the same time, I would be asking for an opinion on what we are doing and what others are doing, all the while trying to get a sense of the suppliers’ idea of the context in which they are making their commercial bid. What’s the competition to Waitrose in your area? How do you sit in the market? I need to make sure the supplier is engaged with the category. Let’s have a rounded discussion.

"Typically, somebody comes in to do a presentation without having set foot inside a Waitrose store. If all they have done is make bread and want me to buy it, that’s not a compelling enough case. If they come in and say: ’Waitrose is selling eight rye breads and has been for some time. There’s an opportunity to move the category on and here’s a way of improving it’, then I’m more likely to go with them."

In bakery, as in other aisles, regionality is increasingly seen as a way of leavening the mix, particularly as Waitrose pushes the northern frontiers. "We’re very keen to move into the north. We’re looking at having regional bakeries provide us with our product as we move into new areas."

But he’s more cautious about the functional agenda dictating NPD. "We’ve already moved a lot of wholemeal suppliers to wholegrain and we are looking at introducing a lot more healthy products, but we don’t want to turn into a chemist.

"There’s no doubt that the public is open to the idea. A lot of it has been driven by the premiumisation of sliced bread, and I will be looking at what development there is in my speciality category. But if you start moving to enrichment, there’s a danger that people feel you are fiddling. If you put in a known entity, such as oats, people know what you are talking about; if you add Omega 3, they are not quite so comfortable with it." n