It has been dubbed a ‘Northern Waitrose’ but Booths, the upmarket family-owned supermarket chain, has its own way of doing things.
“That is mildly flattering as Waitrose is a confident multi-retailer,” chairman Edwin Booth tells Northern Soul. “But the philosophy of both businesses is different. Our business is a classic family business – 95 per cent of shares are held by the family and the remainder by the employees. We have a very strong sense of ownership throughout the business. Everyone has a fair share here. So we’re a little bit like Waitrose with soul.”
At a time when the big four supermarkets are losing share to discounted and premium range rivals, as well as reporting some of their worst results in years, Booths, which is headquartered in Preston and has stores across Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Cumbria and Greater Manchester, is bucking the trend.
“It’s rather dull but we are a family business and we grow at a pace that the efficiency of our business will allow,” Booth says (he is the fifth generation of the family to operate the firm and the sixth generation has just joined). “We are not a publicly-listed company. We grow organically.”
Despite deciding not to open a single new store over the past year, Booths generated a 6 per cent rise in profits in the year to March. The increase, on the back of a 1 per cent increase in sales, came as the supermarket rolled-out a price match campaign linked to a new loyalty card.
“Our card isn’t just offering free tea and coffee and newspapers,” Booth explains. “It’s a little bit like the Waitrose system. Operationally, it has been a challenge. This time last year we decided that we had to find a way to offer more value to our loyal customers…And it has proved a great success. It’s got a very high rate of participation.”
Now the supermarket has embarked on the most ambitious expansion plan in its history, with five stores set to open by 2016 across the North of England. This will bring its tally of outlets to 32 as a couple are refurbishments of existing shops.
Mr Booth said: “We take a very, very long term view. We have a programme of investment in the business. I don’t think this year will look any better than last year and we won’t see another great big jump in profits. But, as I said, we do take a very long term view.
“We are very prudent. We are an efficient company and we are becoming ever more efficient.”
For the first time, Booths is offering a national delivery service this Christmas, raising the prospect of a year-round online service for the whole of the UK. At present, people can only order goods found in Booths 2014 Christmas Book.
“We are seeing a lot of interest from outside our trading area, from the West Highland islands and down to London. If it’s a success, we will look into considering an offering of goods around the country in the future. But we’re not interested in [delivering] general groceries. We’re interested in specialisms, things like meat and wine to name but two.”
But how is Booths managing to expand – and generate profits – when other supermarkets are struggling and engaged in a savage price war? Previous reports have suggested it’s because the company focuses on its customers, not its competitors.
“I’m not very confident about the UK retail company,” says Mr Booth. “But we’ve been going for 167 years and as a relatively small business, we can be agile. And we’re not just a retailer, we are an entertainer. The personality of Booths is extremely important.”
A fastidious approach to stocking quality goods is at the heart of the retail chain’s philosophy, according to Booth. He is particularly proud of the company’s system for procuring milk.
“We pay the highest price per litre in the market for milk, and it is labelled ‘Fair Milk‘. It is a ground-breaking system.”
He adds: “As far as is possible, we source as many products as we can from the North of England. We end up with 25-28 per cent of Booths’ range sourced locally.”
As for the overall supermarket sector, he believes that the “industry is in the middle of a car crash, and it’s not hit the wall yet”. He says that the major chains tried to do “too much, too soon” when building a raft of new stores and that a “major restructuring” is on the cards which will hit the weaker players.
“They thought it was a licence to print money.”
So, what does the future hold for Booths? Perhaps a foray into the South of England?
“For years we have wanted to be known across the country. When I was buying the wine [for Booths] I was frustrated that no-one wrote about us in the national newspapers. More recently, we’ve tried to get Booths talked about on the national stage and it has worked. My daughter has said to me, Dad, if I was involved in the company, I would want to put Booths in the South.”
Watch this space….
A version of this article first appeared in the Yorkshire Post