Question and Answer Session with Phil Archer, Waitrose (June 2015)

At the Barnet Residents Association Annual General Meeting on 30 June 2015, our guest speaker was Phil Archer, manager of Waitrose, Barnet.

Phil Archer has been with Waitrose for 30-odd years and has worked his way up from the shop floor to branch manager 15 years ago. He moved from Barnet Waitrose to Mill Hill about 9 years ago but has come back to High Barnet and is very pleased to be back as it is a very friendly place.

He explained some of the major changes in food retail in the last 10-20 years. First, was the increase in families eating out which was a complete transformation because not as much food was being bought. Second, more and more people are shopping little and often these days, picking up something to eat on the way home. For the majority of people the big Friday shop had gone. Third, was the increase in internet shopping and getting food delivered at a reasonable cost, and the biggest growth in supermarkets has been their on-line deliveries. 25% of people do some shopping on line and that is building every year. Consequently, Waitrose have to change what they do. Most of the big supermarkets operate on profit margins of under 2%. Waitrose margins are bigger than that but they share their profit with the people who work in the shops, as everybody who works in the business is a partner in the business, so they get better pay than in other supermarkets. In his first 3 weeks back in Barnet, a reduction in hours used was necessary for the general supermarket trading climate. This has happened every year because of improving technology and because they are getting fewer items through the tills, so they need fewer people. The technology is available at the moment to do away with check-outs completely and have every item chipped so it is registered as it goes into the trolley and automatically comes off the person’s account as they walk out of the door, but this would not be implemented in stores for some time.

Questions from the floor

Q. Why not tie up with the carpark in The Spires and offer reduced parking fees to encourage people to shop in Waitrose as is done in some other places?
A. The Spires is owned by the landlord and the landlord has let out the carpark to Legion who manage the carpark, so it would be too expensive to run. Where this is done in other parts of the country, the carpark is specific to the supermarket or run by the council. Even an hour’s free parking would not work, and most people spend more than an hour in Waitrose.
Q. Trolleys are often left in Alston Road and other places in Barnet. Are there any plans to have £1 trolleys which would encourage people to bring them back to the shop?
A. Waitrose had been battling with this 10 years ago and the situation has not changed. Some trolleys have magnets installed so they cannot go far or special wheels which will not go over grids but they cost approx. £100 per trolley. PA thought that the £1 trolleys were not enough of a deterrent to someone who wanted to leave a trolley in the road, and the mechanisms regularly break and to repair a trolley lock is over £100. There is the wheel and grid system at Mill Hill but they are still collecting 10 trolleys a day there because the trolleys get taken out through the carpark where the system does not work. Waitrose do not want their trolleys in roads and welcome phone calls when they are spotted and they will be collected. At the moment they collect about 20 trolleys daily in Barnet.
Q. Compliments were paid about the way the store was run and that the staff were very friendly and dealt with issues immediately. Particular compliments were paid about Carole, an employee who was going to Mill Hill, and several people were very sad to see her go.
A. PA said he would make sure he reported that back to her.
Q. Belgravia Waitrose has mini-trolleys, are there any plans to introduce them in High Barnet?
A. Belgravia is a small store serving a population who live within half a mile of the store where parking is difficult, so although it takes a lot of money it is difficult to get a flow through the store, which is not the case in Barnet. There were no plans to introduce them here but there was the possibility of getting baskets on wheels.
Q. The Green Disc scheme was applauded and a member involved in Hospital Radio thanked Waitrose for their donation as the money comes out of the partners’ profits. A plea was made for the charities chosen to be local charities, rather than big national charities with huge advertising budgets.
A. PA said he would look at the charities chosen and suggested that it could be that the money would go to a local unit within a national charity. If that was case, he would consider making it clearer that the funds would be going for local purposes.
Q. The latest Waitrose offer of picking 10 items and getting 20% off them for the next 3 months was discussed, with members criticising the marketing and that shoppers have to register on-line to get the reduction which discriminated against the elderly.
A. PA said that people without internet access or who just needed help, could go to the Customer Service desk with their My Waitrose card and get it set up in the shop. PA said that often Waitrose were the first to trial initiatives which were then taken up by other supermarkets, eg the “bag for life” had been a Waitrose initiative.
Q. Complaints were made that the basket-only check-outs were quite often used by people with trolleys and it was suggested from the floor that staff should refuse to serve those customers.
A. PA said that a customer intent on taking a trolley through the basket-only section and being refused service would cause more disruption and hold up the queue longer than the staff just serving them. The staff are trained to make a judgment on the situation and to move the person through. Those elderly people who needed the trolley for support rather than carrying a basket around the store are permitted to use the basket-only section.
Q. Complaints were raised about the free coffee and newspapers which took revenue away from local coffee shops in particular. It was alleged that there are 11 places where you can buy coffee within 150 yards of Waitrose.
A. PA asked how many coffee shops had actually closed in the time Waitrose had been offering free coffee and the answer was very few, and another new one had opened. The ones which had closed were suffering ten years ago before the free coffee campaign. Waitrose tried to regenerate the community as much as they could and the local traders’ association had been started by Waitrose. In The Spires there is a management meeting every 3 months and only half the traders turn up. PA accepted the free coffee campaign was contentious but since its introduction Waitrose trade had not suffered and the number of people coming in just for their coffee was very few, with most staying in the store and picking up other items. It was cheaper to run a campaign like that than advertising.
Q. A complaint was made about the number of fruit and vegetables sold in packets, with often 6-8 in a bag, which for an ageing population or those living on their own was not cost effective.
A. PA said that more and more people want to buy pre-packaged goods and sales were going up. In convenience stores most are pre-packed. The store still offered as many goods as possible not pre-packaged but some products were best sold this way because it meant less handling of the items. More and more people were buying parcels of food which they could make into a meal for that evening. Someone from the floor suggested that fruit and vegetables could still be bought separately in Barnet Market.
Q. Would the Barnet store be open on New Year’s Day?
A. North Finchley had been open on New Year’s Day and this had been trialled in ten branches across the country. PA said that this was to be discussed and it was a decision for the partners.