If you’ve ever wondered what the lead buyer at Harrods looks for when assessing new products to list, look no further. Our official Ambassador Bruce Langlands, former Food & Restaurant Main Board Director at both Harrods and Selfridges, gives us the inside track.
The most common question I get asked by food and drink producers is what exactly am I looking for when I’m looking at new products. When I was Food & Restaurant Director at both Harrods and Selfridges, I probably had between five and 10 products come across my desk every week. I had a buying team, of course, but I always took a personal interest in taking a close look at any new products we were considering stocking.
Pack a punch
Honestly, the first thing I did with every product was assess the packaging. I know people say that it’s all about the quality of the product and part of me definitely believes that because the product has to be amazing, but it’s the packaging that catches my eye and makes me want to pick it up in the first place. It’s exactly the same for the consumer.
With the packaging, I’m asking myself: what exactly is it telling me about the product?
As a retailer, what I’m looking for is something that’s unique and different. That’s true of every retailer these days, be that Harrods in London or be that a Spar store in Aberdeen. It’s a cut-throat business and all retailers are looking for something different, something that their competitors may not have, something that’s going to really excite and engage their customers.
Time to talk
Once the packaging has got me interested, I’ll dive in and sample it. If it’s offering something different and it’s outstanding quality, maybe it’s time for a conversation with the producer. If not, it goes in the bin.
Another question I get asked a lot is: how do I actually get in front of a retailer with my product? The answer is not as mysterious as you might expect. If you have a great product in great packaging that offers something different, all you need to do find out who the key buyer is and get in touch, then send them a sample with tasting notes and maybe some great photos.
Do your homework
And if you move onto the next stage and get asked to meet the buyer, do your homework. Understand your product inside out and back to front. Understand your competitors too, particularly when it comes to being clear on where your product fits in its competitive set. Just as importantly, understand your prospective retail partner. Nobody goes to a Ford garage to buy a Mercedes and it’s the same in food retail. Understand your buyer and understand what their customers want.
There’s no doubt the pandemic has transformed an industry that was already in the midst of great change. Food retail has shifted dramatically in the last five years but the last year has seen that change turbo-charged. Yes, there have been a lot of challenges – but there are also lots of positives and opportunities, particularly for smaller producers and retailers.
Shoppers are now shopping locally far more often than ever before and that opens up lots of doors for proactive small producers and retailers. Consumers are shopping on their doorstep these days, but they’re also expecting more from their visits to local stores – and the retailers that have understood this and responded to it are the ones who have thrived.
Really good retailers have embraced this shift by working with their supply base. Take my local convenience store. I used to go there maybe once a week for bread and milk. Under the pandemic I’m shopping there three and four times a week and, hats off to the retailer, he transformed his range in under a month. I can now get all sorts of spices, fresh veg and cooking ingredients that he never stocked before. He has added a range of local products and a load of interesting new options. I get a personal service, he’ll stock new lines on request, he listens. And I’ll continue shopping there long into the future. He’s now a destination store for me.
For many retailers these days, it’s all about becoming a destination store. It’s about offering a range that shoppers can’t easily get anywhere else nearby, it’s about giving them reasons to visit your store and not someone else’s. Which is why, when retailers are looking at new products, they have to be unusual and different.
With restaurants closed, people are getting more adventurous with their home cooking and the retailers that understand this trend and cater to it will do well.
And one of the biggest tools in the armoury of every small retailer and producer is agility. You can turn things around quickly and, just as importantly, if something isn’t working, you can turn it off just as quickly.
So 2021 could be a huge year for small retailers and producers and it all comes down to one thing: communication. Working in partnership is the key to unlocking growth and sales. Small producers and retailers really, really understand their customers and by working in partnership, they can deliver new products and new ranges that will appeal to that specific customer base.
My final piece of advice? If you get in front of a buyer, be passionate but realistic. Don’t sell your soul. I’ve seen it so many times. Don’t be pressurised into giving away what you can’t afford to give away. Buyers will push, they want the biggest possible margin – but it needs to work for you too.