Waitrose calls in 'experts'

The cosy partnership ethos at the John Lewis-owned supermarket chain Waitrose is under threat following the revelation that it has broken with tradition and called in management consultants.

The company has appointed Impact Plus to carry out what director of buying, Steve Esom, describes in the staff newsletter, The John Lewis Gazette, as a "study of Waitrose processes for introduction of new lines into branches".

The Gazette, famously a forum for Partner (staff) discontent, carried a letter from a self-effacing Mr JS that slated a recent Impact Plus presentation for suggesting "our buyers should simply follow the practices adopted by the UK's two leading food retailers".

He continues: "Distinction has always been a hallmark of Waitrose, not mediocrity. The director of buying will have to do better than simply copying the format of his former employer." Mr Esom joined Waitrose in January after stints at J Sainsbury and DIY chain Texas.

It seems the Partners may have reason to be worried. After the US consultancy McKinsey went through Safeway, numbers were cut back. "If you are going to maintain growth, you have to raise the return on existing assets," said Kevin Hawkins, director of corporate affairs.

And this, according to Richard Hyman, chairman of the consultancy Verdict Research, could spell trouble at Waitrose. "If your ethos does not allow you to try and reduce the wage bill, you're at a big disadvantage," he said.

Waitrose unveiled a 13 per cent year-on-year increase in sales in January. But it loses out in what is a volume-driven sector by commanding a mere 1.5 per cent of the total pounds 22.4bn grocery retail market. It has 114 stores against Tesco's 545, and although it does well in terms of traffic, its costs are relatively high.

Set up in 1990, Impact Plus turns over around pounds 3m a year. Managing director Andy Miller claims its clients include all the top UK clearing banks and 15 of the top 20 insurers.