Beth Hart modestly describes her role as being in charge of “everything in a fridge at Sainsbury’s”. With such a fundamental job on her hands, as the ‘big four’ retailers continue to jostle to attract shoppers, she reveals why the country’s third-largest supermarket chain is “moving the dial” on the quality of its fresh food
Those who grow fruit and veg for a living know only too well just how tricky it can be to keep curious critters away from their crops. Consumers, however, are fortunate enough not to have to worry about this issue since today’s crop protection and processing methods mean the majority of pests are removed from sight by the time they reach the supermarket.
So, when a consumer discovers a large locust in his bag of rocket from Sainsbury’s, which is what happened earlier this year, it understandably comes as a bit of a surprise for both shopper and retailer.
Hart is head of product development and technology for Sainsbury’s fresh and frozen foods departments, and uses this unfortunate incident as an example of just how fast complaints and other news can spread today. Indeed, when the locust-finding customer posted his discovery on Twitter and Facebook, he told The Daily Mail and Sainsbury’s at the same time.
Raising the bar on quality
Until recently, Hart says the supermarket operator had product specifications in place that were designed to allow a permitted number of errors – that is, the number of errors Sainsbury’s deemed to be realistic given the nature of the product.
Using strawberries as an example, she explains: “We [Sainsbury’s staff] are all quite logical and scientific. We designed a specification that permits a level of mouldy strawberries. We designed it because we decided that’s inevitable.
“But our customers have a choice in where they shop everyday. If there’s a mouldy strawberry on the shelf they will not pick it up. And boy, are they complaining at a level like never before. If we have lots of complaints we have a big problem. We have good people in our supply base.”
Operating in a new world
Sainsbury’s has therefore recognised a need to “raise the bar on quality”, according to Hart. Aside from the fact that complaints can be made public very rapidly, she also points out that retailers such as Sainsbury’s are operating in a different and tough retail market these days. UK net retail sales slumped by £1.4 billion in the year up to March 2015, she says.
“Volumes have been plummeting and prices have been plummeting,” explains Hart. “Customers are shopping less and spending less on fresh food shopping. Consumers – coming out of the back of a recession – are now more conscious of food waste, and are carrying out smaller shops, shopping more frequently and only purchasing what they need. Convenience shopping is therefore increasing – as is online shopping.”
Given these many considerations and the fact that consumers have a good choice of where to shop, Hart points out that Sainsbury’s cannot afford to endure incidents such as locusts in salad bags. “Customers today are different to customers five years ago. We need to work in a different way to meet their requirements.”
Massive revolution underway
In this article on PBUK, former Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King claimed the chain is by far the best performing component of the Big Four in the last eight years. But Hart makes it clear that under new leadership in the form of Sainsbury’s new chief executive Mike Coupe and new food commercial director Paul Mills-Hicks there is a “massive revolution” going on within Sainsbury’s this year.
Every aspect of what the retailer offers its consumers – including the products it sells, the in-store shopping experience, and the customer service – is being revised to ensure that its customers are satisfied.
Part of this drive is seeing Sainsbury’s work closely with its supply base, including suppliers in its fresh food department – which Hart says has been deemed to be one area where the “quality is not anywhere near where it needs to be”.
The quality and specification of some products has already been redeveloped, says Hart, adding that the retailer now aims to design products that “will delight customers and design complaints out”.
For example, this summer Sainsbury’s has improved one of its biggest produce sales lines – the stone fruit punnet. Hart explains that she and her team sat down with their supply base and determined that the fruit does not always ripen in the bowl even though they claimed it does.
“We collectively managed to sell a product to our audience that doesn’t always work,” she admits. “If we, as one of the biggest retailers in the UK, do not focus on the punnet then someone else will and they would have stolen our sales and stolen our customers.”
Has Sainsbury’s got it right?
One of the key initiatives the company has so far introduced as part of its aim to raise the bar on quality is “Quality Week”, which saw the firm “blitz” its supply base. But Hart hastens to add that these were not surprise visits trying to catch suppliers out, rather her team members told their suppliers they were coming and then productively worked with them.
“In some instances, we visited the site and asked questions like ‘Have we got it right?’ or ‘Have we just tied you in knots and tied ourselves in knots?’ before trying to simplify it on the day,” reveals Hart, who says the firm made 361 visits and re-wrote some 240 specifications.
“From that week, a whole raft of work streams and initiatives have started to occur,” she explains. “We are going to instigate lots of initiatives like this over the course of the next year.”
Sainsbury’s also recognises the importance of working with its growers and ‘walking the fields’ to understand what drives quality at grassroots level. Meanwhile, away from the field and within its offices, the firm is working on other new projects as part of its overhaul, such as a new website. According to Hart, last year all British retailers also invited management consultants to look at their businesses.
Plainly, these are changing times for the retail sector but also, perhaps, exciting times that could ultimately lead to some interesting and successful changes within fresh produce retail aisles.