Simon Twigger, Sainsbury’s director of convenience, leads one of the fastest-growing brands in UK convenience. In an exclusive interview he tells Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski why his arrival in an area doesn’t have to mean local independents going out of business

simon twigger
Simon Twigger, Sainsbury’s
director of convenience

There’s little doubt that knowing a senior supermarket executive was walking around your store or community would strike fear into the hearts of many RN readers and spark worries that he was about to launch a branch in direct competition to you. But is there really anything to fear for top independents who are engaged with their community and suppliers, like so many RN readers are?

As director of convenience at Sainsbury’s, Simon Twigger is the man in charge of the Sainsbury’s Local arm of the business and is exactly that kind of supermarket executive.

“I have responsibility for the sales, the profitability, the colleagues who work in the shops – the overall operation,” he tells RN from inside the company’s headquarters in central London. “That goes from deciding if we open a shop in a particular area to dealing with issues with a particular shop, such as when a supplier hasn’t turned up or when water has fallen through the ceiling.”

This role puts him at the heart of the transformation of the convenience market – a change that began when Sainsbury’s and Tesco launched small format stores in the mid-1990s and carries on today with the arrival of Morrisons, Waitrose and Asda into the arena.

[pull_quote_right]Our business, our Local business, might see the world slightly differently to how others see the sector[/pull_quote_right]

Undoubtedly, all this has resulted in hundreds – if not thousands – of independent retailers being forced out of business in the intervening two decades, but affable and engaging, Mr Twigger doesn’t come across like the Beelzebub of small business. 

In fact, it is his belief that Sainsbury’s model is different enough from potential competitors that other retailers, willing to meet the required standards, should be able to operate harmoniously with one of his stores. 

“Our business, our Local business, might see the world slightly differently to how others see the sector  – what makes a good site for me isn’t the same as what is conventionally thought of.”

What is this different model? Mr Twigger says it’s all about fresh food.

“Customers want the convenience of being able to buy most of what they would normally buy at a supermarket on a weekly shop. It could be topping up or it could be a meal for tonight, but it is a fresh foods-led mission and that means my preferred locations might be slightly different from others,” he says.   

A concentration on fresh foods is, of course, a route that many independents are increasingly going down, with symbol group Simply Fresh flourishing with that exact focus. 

Yet, two days after the interview, the company opened its 200th Sainsbury’s Local store, in London, and RN saw that this clear model, and the uniformity of the offer the chain provides nationwide, does leave rich pickings for independents willing to offer their customers an alternative. 

[pull_quote_right] The challenge to businesses comes when you aren’t satisfying the market you serve and then Sainsbury’s or somebody else comes in and does [/pull_quote_right]

“If you pull out the pictures of the first store we opened in Hammersmith in 1998, we had a little deli counter in there, we had a fresh bakery, which all stores have now, and we had coffee. It was pretty forward- thinking for its time, but if you went down there today there wouldn’t be coffee, there wouldn’t be a little deli and it looks a lot like this store,” Mr Twigger says.

Refining this offer has been a process of listening to customer feedback, he says, and the results have been very interesting, demolishing a number of currently-fashionable ideas that permeate other sections of the convenience sector. 

“Some people think that ‘convenient products’ need to be in convenience shops, such as cleaning wipes for polishing. We’ve tried taking out spray polish and putting wipes in, for example, but our customers tell us it’s just as easy to top up on the spray.

“So a lot of the products I sell are exactly the same as you can buy in a supermarket but just in smaller packaging sizes that they would be in the supermarket, where you can buy a 5kg bag of potatoes,” he says.

The inclusion of own brand products adds to this connection to supermarket ranges, with nearly 50% of products sold in local stores coming from Sainsbury’s-labelled stock. “At the moment we have our ketchup on promotion, but if you wanted to buy the leading brand it would probably be twice the price of the own label,” he says.

Sainsbury’s doesn’t embrace the meal deal trends with nearly as much enthusiasm as its peers either. 

“Our most successful meal deals are for lunchtime, but in the evening people put together their meals themselves, so very few people come into buy a complete meal. They’ve got a jar of sauce in the cupboard and need some pasta, or they need meat but already have vegetables,” he says. 

“What we’ve learned from customers is that they don’t want a fixed recipe on an end that says ‘you’re going to have spaghetti bolognaise tonight’ and here’s the pasta and the mince. What they want across the shop is to have the ability to put something together, picking the bits they know they need. Meal deals are just not the way people shop,” Mr Twigger adds. 

This reliance on consumer feedback is at the heart of Sainsbury’s strategy for success. “We have to be the best in the local catchment area where we have a shop and that’s what all my stores need to focus on,” he says.

And for the independent retailer who sees Mr Twigger or one of his colleagues scouting out sites in his community, he says surviving means having an equally customer-centred strategy.

“The challenge to businesses comes when you aren’t satisfying the market you serve and then Sainsbury’s or somebody else comes in and does,” he says.

This is a challenge that more and more RN readers may face in the coming years too, as Mr Twigger highlights the opportunity for growth in the market. 

“Only 6% of the population can get to a Sainsbury’s Local within a fifteen minute walk, so there’s a lot of room for us to grow and take a slice of that £11bn of market growth and,” he adds diplomatically, “leave lots of room for independents and others to grow as well.”

It is this fast growth which Mr Twigger says provides the biggest challenge in his role. “We’ve been growing quickly and, if you want to sustain that growth, you have to have a plan for maintaining what you’ve got,” he says. “There are lots of examples in retailing of companies which have grown too quickly and have turned round and looked at the chaos they’ve left behind.”

A new training centre for managers and area managers in Brixton in south London runs 20,000 separate courses per year and aims to keep standards suitably high.

If that’s the challenge, what about threats the company faces? Will the internet precipitate the decline of supermarkets like Sainsbury’s? Mr Twigger thinks not.

“The assumption is that the supermarket is dead and customers are going to convenience stores or online, but customers are really using all three of these at any time during the week. You might work late during one part of the week and want a meal for tonight from convenience, you have still ordered your main shop online but, on Saturday, you then invite a few friends round for dinner and pop to the supermarket and you pick up 10-15 items,” he says. “The same people are doing different things. My job, along with my online colleagues and my supermarket colleagues, is to allow customers to access the Sainsbury’s brand wherever they are in whatever way they want.”