THE SAFEWAY FORWARD

With a brief to shift Safeway’s `glamorous’, expensive image towards a family-oriented, affordable perception, Roger Partington has had his work cut out for him. But just a year after accepting the challenge, his strategies are showing signs o

SBHD: With a brief to shift Safeway’s `glamorous’, expensive image towards a family-oriented, affordable perception, Roger Partington has had his work cut out for him. But just a year after accepting the challenge, his strategies are showing signs of `lightening the load’. By Helen Slingsby and David Benady

When Roger Partington was first appointed as marketing director of Safe-way a year ago, he admits he had some doubts about his new remit.

The chain was looking for a way of rebuilding its image, and giving it a brand identity to help stand out from rivals Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

But as Partington, an ex- fmcg marketer at Rowntree Nestl, says: “Retailers aren’t traditionally renowned for brand-building. They are more concerned with whether the price is positioned two or three centimetres high.”

Partington, in effect, was brought in to oversee the most significant relaunch of a superstore chain since Tesco dropped its “Pile it High” approach in the early Eighties.

A year after he took up the post, the first fruits of the new approach are being seen. A £7m brand-building advertising campaign has been launched, aimed at young families. The perception that Safeway is an expensive place to shop has been attacked with the launch of the price-fighting Safeway Savers range of essential products. The chain has also joined the cola sub-brand bandwagon with the launch of Safeway Select Cola.

Senior Safeway executives approached Partington direct at Nestl Rowntree where he was marketing director, with pedigree brands such as Kit Kat and Fruit Pastilles under his belt.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Partington would be ensconced in the cosy, close-knit world of fmcg marketing for the rest of his career, but the offer of a fresh challenge proved too tempting. “I moved to Safeway because I was tired of more of the same. I was working on established brands, such as Kit Kat, whose market positioning was well known and it was a case of maintaining the status quo,” he explains. He adds that there were opportunities within the Nestl group, but he was attracted by the idea of change.

The success, or otherwise, of the new marketing initiatives at Safeway will have implications that go far beyond Partington’s career, or even the chain’s profits.

It will be a measure of how far retailers can wield their power as brands. It will fuel the debate on whether branding can enable them to protect and build market shares and engender loyalty with shoppers.

Early signs that superstore retailers were taking the brand route came with Sainsbury’s “Recipes” advertising campaign. It was a significant shift away from simple price messages.

Perhaps this new emphasis is why many of the rising stars of superstore retailing these days are not just the buyers or financiers. Marketers have acceded to key positions in an industry which is shifting to brand-led strategies.

At Tesco, marketing director Terry Leahy has been credited with pushing the chain in front of its rival Sainsbury’s with a host of marketing ploys. At Asda – launched on a get-well-soon recovery programme by boss Archie Norman – retail director Allan Leighton has assumed a key postion in developing the group’s marketing strategy.

The past 12 months have been Partington’s most intense. Not only has he made the transition from classic, blue-chip fmcg marketing to retail marketing, but he has been an integral part of the company’s thorough internal review, dubbed Safeway 2000.

The essence of Safeway 2000 has been to establish a brand identity for the UK’s third largest supermarket chain in a market which is showing signs of slowing and where consumers require a reason to shop.

When asked about the past year, Partington says the learning curve “has been vertical”. “The elements of brand marketing are no different to any classic marketing but the speed and detail involved is enormous,” he adds.

The Argyll group, which owns Safeway and Presto, realised it had to differentiate itself from rivals Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Partington’s task was to help it understand the complexities and subtleties of creating a brand for the chain.

Before he arrived, the Safeway marketing department was relatively immature. It provided a service rather than led the way, says Partington. Nor was it clear who the customers were or, indeed, how they felt about the superstores.

Safeway lost its way by becoming the food authority, says Partington. The chain launched numerous, often premium, product ranges with little thought to their impact, particularly on price. “We were good at generating high-quality products but not very good at recognising price as an issue,” admits Partington.

“We weren’t actually slow to recognise this but we were slow to know what to do,” he says. Hence the arrival of Safeway Savers, a range of no-frills basic items, a year later than its rivals.

Partington, together with an army of McKinsey management consultants employed on Safeway 2000, realised that notonly did they have a vague brand but also a problematic customer base. Average Safeway consumers are upmarket, higher-income, affluent couples or empty-nesters, research revealed. But they spend less on each shopping trip than a young mother with a family.

“My first task was to be more of a destination choice for family shoppers by taking initiatives on price, range and service,” says Partington.

Enter Lightening the Load, the £7m Safeway ad campaign, featuring little Harry and his parents. Created by Bates Dorland, the two-pronged commercial is designed to tell existing customers about the services offered such as post-offices, bag-packing and pharmacies and to make them spend more.

Safeway believes that in terms of service it has an edge on Sainsbury’s and Tesco, claiming it is dedicated to rolling out the extra facilities while the others merely pay lip-service.

In addition, Lightening the Load, with its emphasis on hassle-free shopping, particularly with children in tow, aims to encourage families to try a Safeway supermarket.

Partington admits the image of the chain, with its 20 or so varieties of extra virgin olive oil and 40 different teas, is upmarket and off-putting for hard-pressed mums. “You have to change perception before behaviour,” says Partington. “Safeway is glamorous and can put family shoppers off.”

Much of the past year has also been spent addressing the conundrum of price and how to change Safeway’s expensive image. It has been a comprehensive review. Product lines that make up more than half the company’s turnover have been reorganised on price.

In cooking oils, tea and laundry products, for example, the premium ranges have been cut back and more emphasis placed on mid-point prices.

However, Nomura retail analyst Paul Smiddy is unimpressed. “The changes on price are a step in the right direction but Safeway is still charging more than its competitors. On my reckoning it is two per cent dearer on a basket of goods slanted in Safeway’s favour than Tesco and Sainsbury’s,” he says. “The problem is that Safeway is wedded to needing higher gross margins to sustain net margin because it is a high-cost operator.”

Another aspect of Safeway 2000 has been to rethink the store format for the next 20 years. New ideas on the exterior look, where the product categories are positioned in-store, and the size of the stores will be tested from the spring.

There is some talk, for example, of placing all the fresh food together in one place but Partington is reluctant to elaborate.

He admits the company is taking strides to expand its non-food ranges, such as household goods, which still boast the high margins that are being whittled down on the food side, following the arrival of the discounters.

Part of the thrust for 1995 will be to differentiate Safeway on the issue of own-label. Partington holds strong views about copycat products and sits on the Institute of Grocers’ sub-committee set up six months ago to address the lookalike debate.

He is keen to make more of Safeway’s relatively low ratio of own-label to branded products. About 41 per cent of Safeway’s products are own-label, compared with nearly 60 per cent for Sainsbury’s.

“It is not in the long-term interest to be accused of copying. We are trying to develop brand values for Safeway; by copying you are not saying anything about Safeway except detrimental things,” says Partington.

1994 has been a year of reflection, action and some implementation for Partington. Safeway’s trading structure was rejigged and reorganised into separate business units with various skills such as marketing and research deployed to areas such as food and non-food.

People have left the company but Partington is also actively recruiting to fill three new marketing roles; a director of brand marketing, a director of product marketing and an electronic relationship marketing controller.

“I am committed to brand marketing as a business philosophy and I expect brand marketers to be more than just average managers. They have not only a job to do but they are there to carry the rest of the organisation with them,” he says.

A classic marketer, he started his career – after studying biological sciences – as a trainee on the Unilever management development scheme.

He learnt his trade at Van den Bergh and in the late Seventies went to Paris, where he worked in the margarine and oils division. He is now fluent in French.

On returning to the UK he assumed responsibility for Flora as group brand manager. Partington moved to Rowntree in 1986 as marketing manager for boxed chocolates, only to be promoted to marketing director of the confectionery business a year later, at the age of 32.

Despite Nestl’s takeover of Rowntree in 1987, he remained as marketing chief until last year.

Partington is a demanding boss but a good listener – no one has a bad word to say about him, and that’s not just the opinion of the ultra-cautious agency world. Previous employees testify to his helpfulness and willingness to provide advice. An occasionally stern manner is put aside when socialising.

Partington may make demands on his staff, but his attitude reflects accurately the clearer and more significant role that marketing now plays at Safeway. The company’s annual results in May will demonstrate whether he is on the right road to distinguishing the Safeway brand.

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