Why Waitrose must retain its marketing focus as boss Mark Price departs

As Mark Price announces plans to leave Waitrose, his successor will need to retain a razor sharp focus on improving the customer proposition and understanding what differentiates it if the grocer is to maintain its growth in an increasingly competitive market.

Waitrose has confirmed Price is to leave the grocer on 16 April. It has been speculated that he is keen to take on the role as chairman of Channel 4. He is already the deputy chairman and current chairman Lord Burns is set to retire shortly although Price says he is “at the start of developing” his plans.

Price has been the boss at Waitrose for almost nine years and at the John Lewis Partnership for 33 having joined as a graduate trainee. He was appointed the supermarket’s first ever marketing director in 1998 and has been on the board of the John Lewis Partnership since 2005, first as development director and latterly as deputy chairman.

His successor Rob Collins is currently retail director. He also joined the retailer as a graduate trainee, initially at sister brand John Lewis.

Why marketing has been key to Waitrose’s success

Many of the initiatives that have made Waitrose a success story over the past eight years relate to marketing. Price helped to launch ideas such as the Essential Waitrose brand, myWaitrose loyalty scheme and a number of price matching policies including the most recent ‘Pick Your Own Offers’.

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He has also surrounded himself with strong marketing talent in marketing director Rupert Thomas and head of marketing Rupert Ellwood.

Neil Saunders, managing director of Conlumino, says it is largely down to Price’s skills as “a marketer and grocer” that these have been executed so well.

“Under his tenure a whole host of initiatives have helped steer the company through the challenging times of a global downturn. These have been accompanied by a clear focus on ensuring Waitrose maintains its points of difference and leadership in food.

“Not all of the ideas will have sprung full bloom from Price’s brow. However, it is a testament to his innovative style of leadership that they have developed and flourished.”

Looking forwards, not to the past

Waitrose’s market share is at a record high of 5.2% as sales growth continues to outpace the wider market. However Waitrose is not without its challenges.

It was forced to issue a profit warning last year as investment in operations and pricing hit its bottom line. With the growth of the discounters and the shift online and to convenience Waitrose will need to ensure it remains clear what it stands for and how it can differentiate in the market.

Independent retail analyst Richard Hyman says Waitrose must maintain its focus on future strategy, rather than looking to the past. “This is without doubt the most challenging time in modern retail history. Leadership is far too focused on the rear view mirror and needs to be looking forward. Mark is very good at that and the industry will be poorer for his departure.”

Saunders agrees: “Waitrose has made a good start with developments such as standalone wine and pet websites which are designed to drive incremental sales in particular categories, but there is more work to done in other areas such as convenience stores. “This laser like focus will now be a priority for Rob Collins and his team.”

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