In a new regular feature we identify a gap in the market and set out a plan for filling the niche. Here we head for Scotland to find out what it would take to establish a refined food retailer.
The hypothesis: How to go about founding a quality supermarket chain in Scotland, showcasing great produce and supporting local producers.
It might seem strange to suggest that Scotland undersells itself. It is a proud and distinctive nation, certainly the most volubly patriotic component of the UK (to the extent that it held a referendum on leaving it in 2014). It possesses an arsenal of national imagery, mythology and music that is instantly and positively recognised the world over.
Not nearly enough, however, is said about Scotland’s cuisine and food culture, beyond laboured comic references to haggis (delicious, incidentally) and deep-fried Mars bars (an urban legend with which Scotland has decided, with characteristic bleary humour, to play along). This, as anyone who has spent time in Scotland will be aware, is a scandalous dereliction.
Yet what seems an obvious combination – that of amazing local produce and a resonant national brand – remains unblended in the retail market. There is no real Scottish equivalent of, say, Austria’s MPreis or Switzerland’s Migros: a smart supermarket chain dedicated to stocking and therefore showcasing the best of the country’s food and drink. Not only would such a business be a hit at home but it would also work well abroad – a robust soft-power tool for the country.
Let’s imagine we’re going to found just such a supermarket chain. What would it look like and how would it operate? Instead of consulting the oracles we put the question to a selection of business leaders and producers who understand the Scottish market inside out.
Among Scottish producers there is a consensus that such a step should be taken. “If someone came up with an easier way for smaller businesses to sell their produce there’d be a stampede,” says Liam Hughes, CEO of the Glasgow Distillery Company, a craft gin and whisky distiller.
The potential for profit seems obvious, both in building a specialist retailer and helping small companies become big ones. The Islay distillery Bruichladdich is an example: founded in its current form in 2000 with a £7m (€9m) investment, it was sold to Rémy Cointreau in 2013 for £58m (€74m). “We once did deals with supermarkets as a survival measure,” says Bruichladdich’s Carl Reavey. “But we don’t anymore: they’re not interested in provenance, only price. If there were a genuine retailer emphasising the quality of products we would be enthusiastic supporters.”
It’s clear that connecting with a network of independent Scottish producers would be no hardship. What is required then is an outlet with a presence and an identity. Which, for our purposes, might be partway between unmistakably Scottish upmarket fashion chain House of Bruar and Balgove Larder, a shop that sells produce from its St Andrews farm.
Will Docker, Balgove’s founder, believes that Scotland is “phenomenally effective” at export but agrees that this leaves a gap in the domestic market. “Tourists especially don’t want to come here and eat frozen Brazilian chicken,” he says.
While Docker believes that an upscale store would be a natural fit for goods such as his (“There’s a bit of mythological romance about Scottish food but there’s genuine natural quality”), he has some words of caution about pricing. “The market is incredibly value-oriented. I know everyone knows the joke about copper wire being invented by two Scotsmen fighting over a penny but you really can only charge someone too much once – and they will tell everybody.”
Just south of Hadrian’s Wall, a plausible model for our prospective business has been quietly flourishing for nearly 170 years. High-end supermarket Booths operates 29 stores, mostly in the northwest of England, and has assiduously cultivated its ties to the region. Localism is a key part of the retailer’s business model. “We don’t see ourselves as just running a supermarket chain,” says Booths CEO Chris Dee, a 21-year veteran of the company. “We see ourselves as very much the heart of an ecosystem and our suppliers are fundamental to that. So we nurture and develop them as well as buy from them. We’d buy something that tastes great even if it’s badly branded and packaged – we can put them in touch with someone who’ll help.”
Dee says it is crucial to have enterprising local buyers: “We expect them to be not at their desk but out in the field – often literally.” He also notes that Booths encourages approaches from suppliers, especially through their quarterly “meet-the-buyer” days, when local producers are given the opportunity to pitch.
Dee sees encouraging similarities between his patch and the one we would hope to make our own. “It’s not just having a wealth of suppliers on our doorstep,” he says, “but an industrial heritage that means a lot of suppliers can also be processors – and Scotland has that too.”
The Scottish identity will also – obviously – be key to the way our business presents itself. The good news on this front is that Scotland has one of the most familiar national brands of any country. The potentially iffy news, however, is exactly the same thing. Chris Lumsden, of Glasgow-based branding agency Good, notes that the tropes most often demanded by foreign markets are exactly the ones that will cause actual Scots to roll their eyes and look elsewhere. It’s a belief confirmed by most producers too, all of whom talk of negotiating a fine balance between emphasising Scottish values while avoiding Scottish cliché.
“We work a lot in the whisky sector and in foreign markets there really is an expectation of stags and bagpipes,” says Lumsden. “But at home there’s a perception that the tartan and shortbread tins are only for the tourists.”
Nevertheless, adds Lumsden, there are ways to evoke Scotland abroad without patronising it at home. “You emphasise the quality of the produce and the best of our produce is from the wild places, all rain-lashed and misty. That gives you quite a self- selecting palette of colours, which you could edge with gold, in a muted sort of way, to emphasise the premium aspect.”
The name of our company will also be a fine judgement. Lumsden notes that whiskies with explicitly Gaelic names can struggle overseas as people are reluctant to ask for things they cannot pronounce. “That’s definitely a barrier,” says Carl Reavey at Bruichladdich. “Our distributor in Singapore had to make a video explaining how to say it.” And for obvious reasons, one would want to keep well away from any “Mc-” prefixes.
“I think with a retail brand you can be relatively sophisticated,” says Lumsden. “You should head in the opposite direction to keep away from the kitsch.” The solution provided by Good is an elegant best-of-both-worlds.
The name of our business is Wyldes of Scotland. “Wyldes”, Lumsden notes, evokes both a general sense of unadulterated and untamed purity as well as the honest authenticity of a family name. The “of Scotland” suffix manages the tricky balancing act of understated pride. The simple, jagged logo suggests both the mountains of our new brand’s homeland and – hopefully – the eventually upward-trending graph of our sales figures. The rugged packaging, including such deft touches as Harris Tweed handles on our shopping bags, might even lend itself to a tasteful range of souvenirs – aprons like the ones worn by our staff, for example.
Wyldes of Scotland would start with a flagship in Edinburgh, the Scottish city most readily associated with high-end brands. But the possibilities for expanding the business beyond the country seem obvious and immense – and not just in the luxury markets of Asia and America. “I’ll tell you what’s a big opportunity that isn’t being addressed,” says Liam Hughes of Glasgow Distillery. “England, which I would consider an export market. That’s not me declaring independence, incidentally – just saying there are 55 million customers right there on our doorstep.”
But perhaps there’s an argument for Wyldes remaining exclusively Scottish. “We talk about expanding north or south now and again and what it would do to our identity,” says Dee at Booths. “But we’ve got plenty of opportunities on our own patch. If you want to shop here you have to come here.”
The conclusion: The high-quality produce is there – and the precedents too. With the right branding and a bit of courage, our supermarket chain could be a roaring success.