16 February, 2018

CELEBRATING CHINESE NEW YEAR WITH LUCY

M&S was always top of Lucy’s career wish list. She’s our Senior Buyer for Global Meals. It was our reputation for being first to market with food innovations and renown for food in general that inspired her interest. In her view, we’d established ourselves as the creative leaders of UK food retailing. Today, she makes sure our Chinese, Taste, Indian and Italian dishes are worthy of her high praise.

My buying career began at another leading supermarket; I was their toy buyer originally. I moved to foods because I wanted to try something new and that was it – I was hooked. I focused on desserts to begin with and my first project was actually enhancing a range so it was closer to what M&S was doing!

I love a good takeaway, so my current role suits me perfectly. It’s the best area as far as working with exciting, exotic flavours go. I’m lucky to have a close-knit team to support me and they make every day great fun. My Product Developer, Technologist and I work on new product ideas, as well as improvements to existing lines while it’s my role to make sure we deliver the best deal possible for the customer which means a point of difference worthy of M&S at an affordable price. That’s always my goal – amazing without costing the earth. This means the team and I have to make some careful choices.

We have high hopes for this Chinese New Year. Our year-on-year sales were up 14% last year and our volume equated to 2% of the population tucking into one of our Chinese ready meals. That’s big. It’s ambitious but we’re aiming for an increase this year – and our new product is storming it. Salt & Pepper Chicken launched last week. It’s a real guilty pleasure – so moreish!

We lead the way in terms of quality and first-to-market products. In my experience, other retailers spend most of their development efforts trying to copy us. Which is flattering but also means we have to be evolving constantly to stay ahead. It’s quality that makes the difference; that’s why they want to get as close to our standard as possible. We jealously guard this value. We will never let our customers down – even when there are fierce economic challenges.

Taking a product from concept to shelf is a huge effort. We have to consider strategy, supplier submissions, price negotiation, internal blind tasting panels with staff, artwork and factory trials. Our aim is to become more agile which means getting good ideas to our customers sooner. We sign off the new product in June and start stock planning by line with our suppliers in the autumn. In the four weeks before Christmas, we have weekly calls to check we’re geared up for high-volume sales. Making sure we have sufficient stock for this major peak takes meticulous planning from our factories.

There are very few brands that have the same heritage as M&S. It’s built on looking forward, on always being first. The challenge is to maintain the standard. But we’re inspired to give it our all by our customers – they have such a personal connection to us; everyone seems to have a personal story relation to the brand. Mine is the first taste of pizza courtesy of M&S. Chilli beef deep pan pizza was a family treat every Saturday. My brother still asks me if I can bring it back into the range.

It’s been a great career. This is what I set out to do after university. My creative side has meant that I’ve always worked in very own-label dominated areas. My pre-M&S career was useful to; it gave me the exposure to different approaches. Working to set up an own-label convenience brand from scratch has been one of my biggest challenges to date and taught me a lot about areas beyond buying. We’re big on offering learning opportunities that take you beyond your core role. When I joined, I was blown away by the effort we put into this.

What can I say, I love my job and where I work. It’s open, friendly and fun. We’re evolving right now and change can be hard work. But it’s change for the better so I’m excited about it. Working in this business has taken my interest in food to a whole new level. A lot of the time when I go out for dinner, I end up discussing the food and how it’s been made. It never gets in the way of enjoying it though.

Inside M&S