These days, to be successful, supermarkets must provide value and quality, low prices and convenience, as well as reliability, consistency and responsibility. Aiming for such high standards means a chain's sourcing system must be up to scratch. But what does this involve? And how do the UK's major supermarkets approach the issue? Bernice Hurst reports.

It is widely known that consumers exercise many different priorities when shopping. It is also widely accepted that their professed priorities do not always correspond to their actual purchases. Which leaves supermarkets with the task of being all things to all people. They must provide value and quality, low prices and convenience as well as reliability, consistency and responsibility. No news there. It's not rocket science. But it is pretty tough to deliver. Is it any wonder, then, that sourcing is a never-ending challenge, a minefield and the ultimate destination of any buck that may later be passed when examining sales, profits and loyalty?

All the best relationships are two-way streets. Buyers look for suppliers; producers look for customers. The food industry is no exception. There are many ways to initiate those relationships but building them into a supply chain where everyone benefits is no easy task. Getting from farm to table is more than just a matter of logistics. It is, in the first instance, a treasure hunt as challenging as any truffle hunt. Finding the right product, from the right producers, and securing a steady, consistent supply once consumer demand has been stimulated is the very least that customers expect from retailers.

Underpinning supermarket messages about low prices, value for money and convenience are the messages about their goodwill. How they care for customers and search the world for the products they know they will want to buy. Season and distance are no object but, of course, if they can get what customers demand closer to home then they are all in favour of supporting local producers and the local economy. All they want to do is offer the best to their loyal customers. And to those who are not yet loyal but can hopefully be converted once they realise what is stocked on those endless aisles.

Local sourcing made easier

The old Tesco advertising campaign showing comic Dudley Moore chasing French chickens might be a case in point. Its message was that the very English Moore was happy to run around like a headless chicken himself on foreign turf. Sourcing was equated to selection and nothing was too much trouble for Tesco customers.

Local and regional sourcing is generally easier now than it was a decade or so ago because products are more widely available and accessible. There is an awareness, helped along, in the UK at least, by events such as farmers' markets and regional food fairs. While aimed primarily at selling direct to the public, they make ideal opportunities for professional buyers to identify new suppliers, talk to consumers about what they like and make their initial contacts. In addition, networking events are organised by Business Links and government sponsored development bodies.

Small producers are also helped, and encouraged, in their efforts to contact supermarkets by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), Business in the Community, Food from Britain and the regional organisations it supports. Their combined, second Guide to working with retailers and foodservice companies emphasises recognition of local producers by retailers and advises on the specific steps that should be taken (and avoided) in establishing and developing relationships.

Consumer tastes for home grown produce have been highlighted for the past several years when supermarkets have offered imported fruit and vegetables even while British products were at the height of their season. Campaigns by trade organisations, growers and the media have improved the balance somewhat, ensuring that more individual outlets have a range which includes varieties sourced closer to home.

Ethical trading

Organic products, on the other hand, are still predominantly imported. The official line here is that there has been insufficient supply to meet demand in the UK, particularly in the transitional period while producers are converting their farms to meet official organic standards.

It is the more expensive supermarkets that are able to interact more directly with their customers and suppliers. With an audience defining value in relation to quality and getting a fair product for a fair price, the likes of Waitrose, Marks and Spencer and the Co-op feel less obliged to promote themselves based on so-called every day low prices. 

The Co-op, for a long time, has highlighted its principles of ethical trading and sent out regular newsletters to acquaint customers with its policies. Not being a nationwide chain or one of the big four has given it sufficient freedom not to even try competing on "cheap" alone.

Creating choice

Waitrose's Locally Produced initiative provides "a network of support, guidance and a guaranteed market for the small producer," according to spokeswoman Nevina Mootoosamy. "Waitrose aims to work with small, local and regional producers to offer customers food made on their doorstep, delivered direct to shops where possible." In many cases certain products are therefore only available in a very limited number of outlets. Accessibility is important to retailer, customer and producer alike, ensuring that production levels are not increased beyond what the product can bear. 

Marks and Spencer spokeswoman Kate Todd says that a programme of relationship building launched in 2003 is, if anything, even stronger in 2005. Buyers' backgrounds and experience are specifically relevant to the products they source.

Although the big four do carry a number of locally sourced lines, they are not what the bulk of customers actually demand or are willing to buy. Customers who are more concerned with how much they pay than knowing where their food originates accept that buyers work on their behalf to ensure consistent supplies and choice. Creating that sort of choice is the responsibility of those who source our food; purchasing from the pre-selections made is the prerogative of the consumer. Having a sufficient range of choice to make those purchasing decisions is what enables producers, large and small, local, regional, national and international to continue filling our trolleys.