Such is the pace of change in the spy vs spy world of supermarket buying, that the greatest delight in developing new products comes in creeping up and mugging a competitor with a category first.
So what’s the number one way for a supplier to irk a buyer from Waitrose - the retailer that’s carved out its niche by offering something a bit distinctive and uncommon? Offering them sloppy seconds.
"With Waitrose being such a unique retailer, we’re always looking for something very special, very different, while keeping it clean and keeping the packaging as environmental as we possibly can," says cake buyer Sam Witherington, who insists that proof of a successful product elsewhere is not the way to a Waitrose buyer’s heart. "Quite often, we’re approached by a supplier and they’ll send us something that’s working particularly well in a competitor. You instantly know that it’s never going to work for us."
While all buyers, including Witherington, admit to snooping on their rivals, they all want something new and different. So identikit products popping up in rivals’ stores within a few weeks must be somewhat annoying. "We know that some of what we launched in May is already out there in our competitors’ outlets," exclaims Witherington, whose remit covers pre-packed cakes, Christmas products and sliced bread. Such is the dog-chasing-tail world of supermarket buying, that a buyer’s work is never done. "It moves on very very quickly and already we’re looking at how we can take what we launched in May and change it for later in the year."
The same is no doubt true of the flipside - Waitrose’s recently launched tub formats, including Cornflake Cluster Bites, Mini Flapjack Bites, Chocolate Mini Rolls and Caramel Crispy Bites, have more than a whiff of M&S about them.
So what’s so different about them? Waitrose’s devil is in the details. "We use low sodium cornflakes and - unless [M&S] has changed the product recently - we have a thicker coating of chocolate. It’s that type of detail that makes us slightly different," she says.
Anyway, talk of M&S is a bit of a red herring, as Waitrose prefers to price-match against Sainsbury’s. These days, though, Waitrose is certainly having to compete head-on with all the major retailers for its slice of the premium and speciality cake market. This makes it more challenging to differentiate the offer - and it’s something Waitrose takes great pains over, especially in communicating the products’ credentials.
"We talk as much as we can about the recipe and product on packaging and in publications. We’ll do tastings in-store. We want customers to see the product and be able to taste it. We’re very fortunate in that our in-store partners are very informed about the products we sell and they will feed back to us, so we can make sure there is enough information about that product as we can give."
May’s cakes relaunch, which featured revamped packaging with more on-pack product stories and product visibility, has bucked some forecasts of consumers trading down, propelling Waitrose’s cake sales up by 30%. "We were conscious that we were launching just as people were tightening their belts," she recalls. "Obviously we wanted people to invest initially in what could be a risky purchase." That paid off on the back of promotions and tastings.
Nevertheless, suppliers must be more conscious than ever that indulgent products justify the price - and not to ignore the tricky entry-level price point, which poses the greatest challenge: having to satisfy indul- gence, clean label and reasonable shelf-life demands amid rising costs. And, of course it’s got to be different from the rest.
One product where it has worked is the now-ubiquitous cupcake. "Cupcakes have had a phenomenal burst of life in a number of retailers," says Witherington. "But every cupcake that came in to us just wasn’t right.
"In our chocolate cupcake we wanted a chocolate sauce deposit. We wanted a buttercream. We didn’t want a standard iced product. We wanted fruit pieces in a strawberry cupcake base. We wanted a really tangy lemon curd in our lemon cupcake. And we’ve achieved it with a very small supplier, who is very happy to do it."
That supplier is Esher-based The Cookie Man, which produces for Waitrose own-label. "We have a very strong existing supply base, but there are inevitably going to be suppliers out there doing different products in a small niche market that would fit Waitrose perfectly," explains Witherington.
A word of caution to prospective suppliers, however: don’t turn up to sales pitch with ’Taste the Difference’ emblazoned on your goods. She says: "Some people can be quite insistent that, because it’s worked for another retailer, it’s got to work for Waitrose! It’s sometimes difficult for suppliers to understand quite how different a Waitrose customer profile is."
=== Sam Witherington at a glance ===
CV: A placement at high street retailer Robert Dyas, while at Huddersfield University, preceded a three-year stint at Superdrug; Witherington joined Waitrose 10 years ago, first as non-food buyer, then for the past 2½ years, as the buyer for packaged cakes, Christmas lines and sliced breads
Role: "The jump from non-food to fresh was a bigger jump than I’d ever imagined. Seasonality was never much of a factor in non-food. It’s phenomenal the amount of time it takes to prepare for Christmas. Having gone through that pain I can now say I enjoy it!"
Pastimes: "I’ve been eating so many cakes for the past year that I’ve invested in gym membership. I’m cycling or going to the gym three times a week now. You have to, just to shed the additional stone you put on with the cake."
Getting listed: Contact should be made initially with a phone call or an email. Give a full outline of your company and products, and follow that up with samples.
Suppliers’ notes: "If we’re expected to charge a lot for a product, that has to be blatantly obvious in the taste delivery and in what we can say about the product."
Tips for the future: For the past year she has been developing the Christmas lines, eradicating additives and non-free-range egg (more details in BB soon). Next up, Waitrose will be developing more convenience and snacking-type products across the business. Witherington will also be updating recipes to make popular own-label sliced breads completely additive-free.
=== Waitrose buyer BOGOF ===
Why meet one buyer when you can meet two? Bread buyer James Dickson tells BB that the redevelopment of Waitrose’s Italian breads and hearty English breads are helping to reposition the range. "We didn’t previously have a lot of premium own-label exposure [for traditional English breads]. We had an entry-level range, which we’ve taken out," he says. "That space has been taken by more premium products."
He expects a set of four dome-shaped cobs, launched in February - which includes a pumpkin seed cob with cumin running through it - to come into its own in the autumn. The cobs and the Italian breads are made by Slough-based Montana Bakery and the organic seeded bloomer by Nicholas & Harris in Salisbury.
He also launched a big-selling organic pre-sliced multi-seeded loaf, and a bread range marketed as a savoury accompaniment to cheese. He says: "Through the summer we are seeing good sales from the Italian sector; come the winter we expect English breads to take over."