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Tim Chicken of Waitrose on meeting modern logistical challenges

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High-end grocery Waitrose, part of John Lewis, is wrestling with the changing retail landscape like every other retailer – and working to develop operations in the right direction, based on its strengths and by being open to new opportunities. Head of distribution, development and transport Tim Chicken talked in detail at IRX 2018 about his priorities. Christian Annesley reports on a fascinating session

For the high-end grocery chain Waitrose, the operational and logistical challenge has some particular dynamics to it, with a concentration of its 350-plus stores in the south-east of England but an ambition to improve its delivery offer nationally. It also has some clear strengths it can play to in today’s market, such as the high proportion of medium-sized high street locations it occupies – which fits well with changing consumer habits such as the growing popularity of shopping little and often.

How does Tim Chicken, the grocer’s head of distribution, development and transport, see today’s opportunities and risks? “We work hard to understand the marketplace and its characteristics,” he told the audience at IRX 2018. “It’s been volatile in grocery for many years, with customers less loyal, spending less per visit and increasingly valuing convenience. Many consumers shop little and often these days, and more spontaneously.”

In terms of what that summary of shifting sensibilities means for Waitrose, Chicken said that if convenience is the watchword, the grocer’s online proposition moves centre stage, with a continued push to make the customer experience simple, speedy and seamless, with free delivery and short-notice delivery options backing up a strong online ordering experience.  

“We have been challenged online like every established retailer, but we’re always trying to up our game and in other respects we are well-positioned to deal with the market, given our plethora of town centre and smaller stores. But it’s not easy: we are still toughing it out in a context where convenience slots on the high street are limited and the online competition only gets hotter.”

Operations and partnerships

Chicken described the Waitrose positioning as a values-based approach delivered as an omnichannel proposition, with an improving website and expanded delivery, alongside big investments in the store infrastructure and in streamlined logistics.

So what are the crucial operational plays to bring it all together? “Service is important to us – inspiring customers through quality and convenience – and partly that offer will be delivered operationally through partnerships,” he said. “Offers like grazing areas and juice bars in stores, as well as new pet-related and dry-cleaning services, are part of what sets as apart, as well as an expanded food-to-go proposition. But some aspects of our evolving offer, especially in relation to logistics, will be best delivered through partnership.”

What kinds of partnerships? Chicken set out a wide-ranging vision that’s designed to put the “rigid” replenishment models of the Waitrose from the 1990s firmly in the past. “We have to live up to our promise to customers – like one-hour delivery slots, for example – and that means an agile distribution network and a contemporary transport management system that delivers seamless flow across channels.” 

Given that Waitrose stores are heavily biased to the one region, Chicken said that the company may need outside help: “Does the last-delivery have to be Waitrose-branded vehicles? Might we see a shared infrastructure in time between multiple grocer partners? It’s something we are thinking about, make no mistake.”

In the same vein, Chicken said Waitrose is open to collaboration and transparency to explore the most efficient means of delivering for customers – leveraging skills, sharing best practice and collective learning to raise the bar and make improvements faster.“It’s in the same spirit that we are here at IRX 2018 today,” he noted. “We want to share ideas, invest in relations and create partnerships. We also have the same approach internally, as you would imagine – we are a democratic business and want a culture where the best ideas are harnessed and the sharpest thinking flourishes.”

On the agenda, whether through partnership or otherwise, are in-play projects and initiatives such as grocer’s use of natural-gas vehicles, as well as research and development work in areas including low-cost autonomous warehouse vehicles, full-spectrum warehouse mechanisation, and energy-use projects right across the business.

“Autonomous vehicles are also in our sights, but realistically we think mainstream usage is still 15 years off,” added Chicken. “The potential is huge, of course.”

John Lewis synergies

If that future-minded thinking is front of mind already at Waitrose, more immediately Chicken says that moving closer to partner brand and parent company John Lewis, to make best use of economies and synergies from their respective distribution networks, makes great sense and is already under way.

“You’d expect nothing less. There is great potential in working closely with John Lewis, and it’s already in play with our click-and-collect offer bringing the two together. There is lots more going on behind the scenes, which will be apparent soon enough.”

This feature first appeared in the IREU Top500 Operations & Logistics Performance Dimension Report 2018. Click here to explore the Top500 series further.

Image: InternetRetailing Media Services

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