Booths - Lancashire's favourite retailer could be heading to a town near you

PUBLISHED: 00:16 30 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:58 20 February 2013

Booths - Lancashire's favourite retailer could be heading to a town near you

Booths - Lancashire's favourite retailer could be heading to a town near you

Lancashire's favourite retailer may be coming to a town near you as the family firm goes for growth. Edwin Booth talks to Roger Borrell

With Waitrose about to park its tanks on his lawn, Edwin Booth cuts a remarkably calm figure at his streamline, eco-friendly Preston headquarters.

While rivals come and go, Booths has established a particular place in the affections of many Lancastrians since the family started the business in 1847.

The China House in Blackpool was, no doubt, an oasis of gentility where the relatively well-off chattering classes gathered over cups of tea. Fast forward 165 years and Booths of today is a very different place, but the mission statement has not changed.

Back then, the 19-year-old Edwin Henry Booth said his aim was to sell the best goods he could buy in shops staffed with first class assistants. Five generations on, todays chairman believes that still holds good. While the philosophy is constant, the company is unrecognisable. It now has 28 stores across the northern counties and one of its latest incarnations, at MediaCity on Salford Quays, is the firms first venture into urban areas.

With Waitrose building a regional distribution centre down the road at Chorley with the capacity to supply 80 new stores across the north, you could be forgiven for expecting a siege mentality at Booths HQ.

Not a bit of it. Edwin Booth and his team are coming out fighting, busily looking for opportunities to expand rather than retrench. With a 37million war chest following a refinancing of the company, its possible they will be investing in another ten stores over the next five years with the more affluent communities of Yorkshire firmly in their sights.

Its true that Waitrose are moving into this area and competition keeps everyone awake at night, but I can sleep soundly in the knowledge that we have a very good team, he says. We have a large number of very competent individuals working around the clock to make sure we keep our sails trimmed.

Over the years, various rivals have made overtures with a view to buying the business. All have failed and the Booth family remains at the helm. Edwin said with typical humour recently: Theyve had a sniff we just offered them a handkerchief.

He added: When Sainsbury were on the move my father said they would never come to the north west because we were here. I didnt think that would be the case and when they did arrive people said it would be the end of us. It wasnt.

People have described us as the Waitrose of the north. But we are more special than that we are Waitrose with soul. Our design, our shop floors are more interesting, the story behind our products is richer.

Its personal. We interact with our customers and with our suppliers. When you shop at Booths you buy into the region and a food story. Its about quality, provenance and taste. And we celebrate seasonality. Instead of importing, we encourage our buyers to use tools that maximise sales of food produced in the UK.

With something like 25 per cent of its products sourced locally, Booths has a significant impact on the regions economy from the local jobs it provides to the farms it supports.

The Salford Quays store is a completely new dynamic for us and people have started asking me if this is the start of Booths moving into the cities, he says. The simple answer is that we will be looking at urban opportunities in the future.

We are always prepared to look at opportunities to trade in different ways. For instance, this new store has a significant food-to-go section selling high quality and unusual wraps, sandwiches and the like - all produced in store.

They also deliver food from the new store into Manchester city centre with a small electric van that looks like something from Noddy. It silently wafts around the city.

New stores are constantly under consideration. We always have to look at satisfactory rents, access for cars, the demographics does the area have the sort of customers who are interested in what we sell?

Demographics do change in areas people get older, they have changing interests in the food they eat. People tease me saying our stores are full of older customers and what are we going to do when they die? But thats not true the people shopping in Salford, for instance, are BBC folk, perhaps younger, hipper. But we appeal to people who are interested in how their food has been reared or grown, how its packaged and where its from. Thats not confined to any particular age group.

The growth of the brand is illustrated by the fact that sales in 1997 stood at 95m. Thats increased to the current level of 270m. Expansion has not been trouble free with some local businesses complaining about the impact a new supermarket will have on the High Street.

We are a competitor and we have competitors so we compete, says Edwin. If you dont go into a place because it might take business from other supermarkets or retailers then you will never go anywhere.

But I can say that where we are alongside good independents they survive and, in some cases, thrive. For instance, our store in Ilkley in West Yorkshire has a very good butcher nearby and, as a result, our meat sales arent as high as we hoped. But we are not in the business of protecting the status quo.

As the economy becomes more rocky, supermarket groups attempt ever more elaborate ways of parting shoppers with their cash through discounting and loyalty cards.

Edwin dismisses much of this as smoke and mirrors. He added: The economy has made a difference and encouraging people to buy more is very difficult when the consumer has made price paramount.

It comes as no surprise that discounters have had a second bounce but we are not discounters and we are not purporting to be the cheapest. We are not growing at the rate we expected four years ago but we are still growing because of the products we provide. We are keeping on track.

Edwin Booth doesnt shy away from challenges. When the Salford store opened the PR people got him to lead a bull weighing a ton and a half along the quayside. He was called Big Pappa and it was a challenge leading so much prime beef - at one point he had me pinned against the railings.

I thought if he doesnt stop soon it could be interesting! Im still here.

Green is go

Environmental concerns are close to the heart of the Booth family and that is one of the reasons Edwin has established a rapport with the Prince of Wales. It is also rumoured he does a rather good impression of him.

Edwin says: Putting doors on our chiller cabinets gives us massive fuel savings of 35 per cent. We reduced our food miles by working with Lancaster University to use computer models and logistics which have, so far, reduced our daily mileage by between 600 and 700 miles.

We have significantly reduced wastage by making deliveries of products when they are needed. Methane emissions are a big issue and, of our greenhouse gas footprint, 61 per cent is attributable to meat and dairy. We arent going to tell people to stop eating meat and dairy because its so important to the regions economy. But we are working with producers to to find the most efficient methods. We are looking at anaerobic digesters, more efficient refrigerators, heat recovery and the like. Because we are a family business we can take a longer term view. We arent here to make the biggest or fastest bucks but we are here for sustained and well managed growth.

The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Lancashire Life

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