11 November 2020, 10:53 AM
  • Sainsbury’s said the move to shut down its food service counters is based on reduced customer demand, but Waitrose is vowing to put more resources behind its own operations
Waitrose to boost fresh food counters after Sainsbury’s closures

Just days after Sainsbury’s announced it would close its meat, fish and deli counters, Waitrose has unveiled fresh plans to boost its own food service counters.

Waitrose has launched 30 new lines across its counters since April, and it said it will relaunch its fish and meat counter ranges online at the beginning of next year. The retailer was keen to reassure suppliers and customers about its fresh food counters following Sainsbury’s move to close its counters, which, along with the closure of 420 Argos outlets, will result in about 3,500 job cuts.

“Waitrose is renowned for its service counters, and they remain a key reason why many people shop with us,” said Waitrose category proposition director Jackie Wharton. Food counters allow Waitrose to bring “skills, knowledge and expertise” into its supermarkets, Jackie said, adding that keeping Waitrose’s counters open through the pandemic has helped to “sustain many of our smallest British suppliers, who otherwise would not have had a route to market this year”.

“Having tripled our slot capacity to over 200,000 orders a week, and in light of increased demand for online this year, there is now a huge opportunity for us to offer our counter range on Waitrose.com and we’re excited to relaunch it at the beginning of next year,” Jackie said.

Simon Roberts, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, also announced that online shopping had skyrocketed due to the pandemic, rising to 40% of all sales, compared to 19% this time last year. “Covid-19 has accelerated a number of shifts in our industry,” Simon said, adding that by simplifying its business, Sainsbury’s would “do a better job for our customers and deliver an improved financial performance and stronger shareholder returns”.

Indeed, Fraser McKevitt head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar, said that the number of supermarket trips involving a visit to the delicatessen, meat, or fish counter has fallen by 33% in the past 12 weeks, as many operations were suspended because of the pandemic. “But that doesn’t mean shoppers are snubbing unpackaged, fresh products altogether,” he continued.

But it appears that shoppers are favouring independents for their food service counter needs. “In fact, the first national lockdown saw record numbers of people buy meat from other sources. Over two million households have visited their local butcher in the past three months, 100,000 more than this time last year,” Fraser said. 

Sainsbury’s closure of its food counters is no surprise to indie shops

Mark Kacary, managing director of The Norfolk Deli, was not surprised by the closure of Sainsbury’s food counters, explaining that multichannel retailers fail to replicate the passion and drive needed to successfully run a first-rate deli or butcher. “To run a high-quality cheese counter or an excellent butcher counter requires more than a spreadsheet, and is not as easy to manage as some might believe.”

Although he was sad to hear about the job losses, saying it “not something we would wish upon anyone,” Mark said that for retailers it was “overdue karma to and for all the small high street businesses which were effectively driven out of business” by supermarket chains’ “incessant drive to provide anything and everything small independent specialists were known for on the high streets.”

“What supermarkets and shareholders failed to recognise is that whether you’re a butcher, baker, greengrocer, cheesemonger or deli owner, the reason you’re doing what you do is because you have a passion, which can rarely be replicated within a supermarket environment,” Mark said.

The personalised service of a fine food retailer is also what shoppers are looking for – something that large retailers struggle to offer. Butchers who can tell the difference between joints of meat or cheesemongers who can match a cheese to a mood or a drink offer something different to the “large, impersonal supermarket,” where a high level of growth is needed to meet shareholder demands.

Patricia Michelson, the founder and director of La Fromagerie, agreed that supermarkets often try to replicate what “independent and specialist food shops do so well by trying to emulate their way of business”. But, she says, “It’s no good putting a space into your supermarket and calling it The Cheese Room when all it is is a glorified basic supermarket cheese offer with a few add-ons that look out of place amongst all the other stuff.”

“I am not surprised at all by Sainsbury’s seeing where they are most effective, and concentrating on that,” Patricia said. And it’s not the first time a retailer has had to backtrack on food counters due to competition from stronger independents. “When the Waitrose store on Marylebone High Street decided to close their cheese counter, it was quietly cited that La Fromagerie around the corner did the job and that is where people tended to go,” Patricia said.

Sainsbury’s move to close its food counters also follows a similar decision by Tesco at the start of 2019. At the time, Tesco attributed the closure of its fish, meat and deli counters across 700 stores to “customers shopping in different ways” and having less time available to shop “which means they are using our counters less frequently”.

With the rise of local shopping that has been witnessed since the start of the pandemic, and the new trend of speciality food shops attracting a younger demographic, it appears that consumers are now more prepared to go out of their way to visit a butcher or fishmonger. Supermarket loyalty, meanwhile, has faltered, with shoppers keen to visit smaller shops with fewer people and queues. This creates an opportunity for fine food retailers where supermarkets have failed.

“We will be seeing a new way of shopping – not just online, but shopping local and supporting the independent shopkeepers,” Patricia said. “We have a different way of life now, so the short spurts of going out are now about going food shopping locally for something special or even just something from a shop where so much care is taken in the products they sell. We are harking back probably to those good old days of everyone knowing your name in your local shop.”

“We are not answerable to shareholders,” Mark says. “We, along with every other small, independent, specialist food business, do this because we have a passion we want to share with the public.”

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