M&S talks a quality game

A ny former First Quench staff still looking to get their career back on track could do worse than giving the manager of their local big Marks & Spencer a buzz.

BWS category manager Andrew Bird is hoping the chain will recruit getting on for 200 more wine advisors and thinks people with specialist off-licence experience could fit the bill.

“You don’t work in the specialist off-licence trade without being able to talk to customers,” he observes.

Bird should know – his route to the top drinks job at M&S started with a part-time sales assistant role in Victoria Wine just 15 years ago.

In the intervening years he had a steady, but notable, rise as store manager for Victoria Wine and Threshers, assistant buyer and then buyer at First Quench, a wine buyer for Sainsbury’s – including a spell in Hong Kong for Sainsbury’s Asia – before moving to M&S in 2008.

“Nothing gives you quite as much insight into customer behaviour as standing behind the counter and dealing directly with them,” he says. “I’ve no doubt I’m a better buyer or category manager as a result of those days in-store.”?The wine advisors are part of a plan that includes ramping up the M&S ecommerce wine package and constantly innovating across the product range – still dominated by own-label in wine but now incorporating a fair smattering of brands in beer and spirits, in line with M&S’ wider policy.

“There are certain brands that define customer behaviour, where you can’t really do as good a job in own-label, where the customer will just look at it as a cheaper version,” Bird says.

“We’re very proud to put the name of the brewer on our bottled ales where we have a relatively good market share, but with cans of lager customers expect to find one of three or four very big brands. Marmite is Marmite – you can’t do an own-label version.”?But wine is different, says Bird. M&S’ exclusive ranges can be even more successful than the branded version stocked by other retailers.

Arguably, what gives M&S the edge in wine is its sourcing structure which includes specialist winemakers as well as conventional buyers.

“You get better quality because you have a winemaker there working with the winery’s own winemaker,” Bird says.

“Very often, we get to taste the tanks from that winery before its own brand has been made, let alone before anyone from another retailer gets there.

“You also have far better traceability. Other retailers are buying off the peg and won’t have that fundamental understanding of where that product comes from.”?Since Bird joined M&S, the range has been increased from 500 to around 600.

“It’s as big as it needs to go – but it’s important to keep a good churn of innovation and new wines coming through all the time. M&S aims to replace 25% of its entire product range every year. We don’t change 25% of our wine range, but it’s certainly in the high teens, which is a pretty good rate of innovation.

“It gets lonely in the office because the wine team are out sourcing these new wines a lot of the time.”?Bird acknowledges that M&S “slightly” over-trades in European wines but says the team’s working hard to improve in upcoming countries. South Africa is a priority and the company already claims to have 30% market share with Argentina.

The range aside, Bird says a priority has been to get the wines talked about by the media and the public.

“I knew we had a great range but most customers probably didn’t know it was that good, so one of the big jobs was to talk about that.” Major wine awards have followed and “we’ve also been able to translate that into talking to the customer base, with in-store wine brochures which introduce the team and bang home the fact we have winemakers when no other retailer has a winemaking department”.

The results haven’t just been aesthetic. “It’s paid off in sales,” says Bird. “We sell a lot more wine than we did two or three years ago.

“It’s not as if we’ve promoted loads and loads – we’ve relentlessly talked a quality game and customers have responded to that. A lot of our competitors have run quite fast away from a quality image in the past year or so and we’ve benefited from that, too.”?M&S has arguably been ahead of the game on formats, such as taking a punt on Le Froglet ready-to-drink wine glass, which comes with a peel-back lid, or putting all its 25cl bottles into PET.

“The general pace of innovation in drinks is relatively slow compared with some convenience food areas,” says Bird. “We’ve tended to lead that kind of innovation and ask our suppliers to do it for us. We’re probably ahead of some – if not many – of our competitors.

“M&S is nothing if it’s not innovating faster than its competition.”?So far, there’s been relatively little resistance to PET, which has led Bird to think it may work in larger sizes, too.

“There’s been relatively little feedback either way – customers are usually pretty vocal if they don’t like something that’s changed.

“The bottles look like glass until you get very close, but people like it because if they drop it on the floor it isn’t going to break. It’s lighter and if they put it in their bag it isn’t going to squash their bread rolls or their pizza.”?It sounds like the sort of insight you could only pick up from a customer on the shop floor.