Sunday, March 23, 2008

Retail Memo: Waitrose's 'Chubby Grocer' Mark Price 'Weighs-In' on His Rival; Marks & Spencer CEO and 'The King of Pants' Sir Stuart Rose

Let's face a cold, hard fact: When it comes to comparing grocery retailing in the United States and the United Kingdom, on thing is perfectly clear: The Brits just have a whole lot more fun with the business than their American counterparts, especially at the CEO or Managing Director level.

Sure, there are the occasional bursts of wonderment and mirth among U.S. grocery retailing CEO's, like the news last year that Whole Foods' chief John Mackey had been posting anti-Wild Oats Markets and pro-Whole Foods acquisition comments on various online financial bulletin boards during the run up to the Austin, Texas-based grocer's buyout of natural foods chain Wild Oats. The incident was good for lots of press--and some fun headlines such as "Wacky Mackey." We can't recall one U.S. supermarket chain CEO commenting on it though, although others from all walks of life did.

In the main though, U.S. retail grocery chain CEO's are pretty staid folks, no disrespect intended. Further, the retail grocery industry in the U.S. has very little prestige for some reason among the corporate and business community, as well as with the American news media.

On the other hand, the UK press has elevated its reporting and writing about that nation's grocery retailing industry to a high art form. The country's newspapers, tabloids and other media outlets report on the UK's top grocery chains daily. And, it's not just business stories these scribes write about either. UK Retail grocery industry CEO's often are covered and written about at near-celebrity levels. The good, the bad and the ugly are reported regarding the supermarket chains and their leaders.

For example, there's Sir Terry (Leahy) of Tesco, who appears in the British press more often than rock star Paul McCartney (pre-divorce of course). There's reports on the comings and goings of Wal-Mart, which owns the UK's number two retail chain, Asda, at least daily. Further, there's what we call the "Daily Sainsbury's," news all about the UK's third-largest grocery retailer. And, that's just the tip of the UK grocery industry and CEO media coverage iceberg.

Britain also holds its supermarket CEO's in rather high esteem. As such it gives them major props when they are up--and feels free to kick them when they are down.

United Kingdom CEO's or Managing Directors are a royal bunch as well. Sir Terry of Tesco has been knighted (hence the Sir in Terry), as has Stuart Rose, CEO of Marks & Spencer. Add to that list Sir Morrison, the just-retired CEO of the grocery chain Morrisons', which is the fourth-largest in the UK. There's even a Lord in the group, Lord Sainsbury.

Then there's Mark Price, the Managing Director (essentially the same as CEO) of upscale grocery chain Waitrose. Price, who calls himself the "chubby" and "jolly" grocer in honor of his slight girth, which he's in the process of reducing--an effort he chronicles daily in his blog by reporting what he ate for lunch and dinner the day before and breakfast that morning--daily in his own blog on the Waitrose corporate website.

Price may not have achieved "Sir" status yet like the others, but he is without peer in UK grocery retailing executive circles in terms of having fun with and loving his job as the head of Waitrose. Price also is the only supermarket CEO in the UK to write his own daily blog--and in the words of many readers tell them way too much about his personal eating habits.

We love Price's blog--and read it often. Another thing the "jolly grocer" uses his blog for is to have some fun with his UK retail grocery chain CEO peers. He especially likes to dig (slight, British digs mind you) Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco over this issue or that when the mood--and the issue--strikes him. The blog's digs on Sir Terry are all in jest mind you--but they do often have some larger meaning behind them as well.

Right now Waitrose (and its parent John Lewis) and Tesco are a bit at odds with each other competitively speaking. Waitrose, which also owns the online UK grocery-retailer and home delivery service Ocado, recently announced it would beat Tesco's retail prices on a couple thousand basic, everyday grocery items at the online supermarket. On its website, Ocado has a banner promotional ad which reads: 'Tesco Prices, Waitrose Quality, Ocado Delivery.'

Tesco shot back--and the battle has been enjoined--with some harsh words by both retailers and talks of lawsuits by Tesco. As a result, we expect the "chubby grocer" to either lay off writing about Sir Terry and Tesco for a while on the advice of legal council, or to do the complete opposite, and perhaps sharpen the nature of his digs just slightly.

But, it's Price's latest friendly dig at his friend and collegue Sir Richard Rose, CEO (and now Chairman as well) of Marks & Spencer, we want you to know about today.

First, a little background: Unlike is the case in the U.S., the top-three UK supermarket chains--Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's-- and a number of others near the top like Marks & Spencer, sell soft goods like clothes and hard goods like electronics and appliances, in most of their stores in addition to food and grocery products. (Waitrose stores just sell food and groceries in the main, including the best of the best in terms of quality, but it's parent company, John Lewis, operates department stores.)

Additionally, all four of these retailers sell men's and woman's clothing as part of their soft goods' merchandising, including producing and selling pants, shorts and other garments under their own store brands. The retailers' are as competitive in the soft goods category in many ways as they are in the food and grocery category.

There are even awards for the best store brand clothing, as there are in the UK for best store brand grocery products. And, Mark's & Spencer was just recently named this year's best purveyor of own-brand pants out of all the UK soft goods (and those that sell groceries as well) retailers.

Lastly, Marks & Spencer CEO Sir Stuart Rose recently became the Chairman of M&S as well as its CEO. He also signed a new 10-year contract as Chairman and CEO of the popular UK retail chain.

Back to Waitrose Managing Director/blogger Price. Last week the "jolly grocer" used his blog to write about--and offer a gentle dig to--M&S CEO Rose. Price and Sir Stuart had dinner together last week at a male only event called the Solus Club, which was held in London's posh Dorchester Hotel.

Price used the occasion of being with Rose at the dinner, following the Chairman and CEO's inking his new 10-year contract, as well as Marks & Spencer's getting its "best pants' retailer nod," to try out some new nicknames or "official titles" on Rose, whom he calls "The King of Pants," (among other titles) in honor of the "best pants retailer" honor.

Among the "official titles" Price says in his blog he offered to Chairman and CEO Rose (which Sir Stuart confirms) were: El Presidente, Grand Formage, Defender of the Universe, the Silver Foxy Overlord of the High Street and--as a nod to the combined Chairman and CEO roles rolled in with the "best pants" honor--First Lord of the Knicker Drawer.

Price also can't resist commenting on Rose's dual positions at M&S in his blog, saying he (Rose)agreed on the new, 10-year contract between himself (the Chairman) and himself (the CEO). [Read the "chubby grocer's" post about his dinner with Rose here.]

Rose seems to be taking it all in stride. He says he takes all of Price's comments, in the blog and verbally, "in the spirit in which they are intended." That's a very Chairman-like comment, we must say.

Meanwhile, today is a big day for Price, the "chubby grocer." Today, Easter Sunday, is the day for his big weigh-in to see if his efforts over the last three months to lose weight will give him the new nickname, the "not-so chubby" grocer.

Price is spending the Easter weekend on holiday with his family. He did make a blog post today but there was nothing about the weigh-in because it was an early morning pre-weigh-in post. But the signs look ominous as evidenced by this mornings post.. In that post, Price mentions a huge breakfast he just finished at his hotel restaurant in Breton, where he is on holiday. The morning meal sounds huge.

We bet he waited until tonight for the weigh-in so he could digest that breakfast spread a bit. But, what about Easter lunch...and dinner? The calories, the carbs of it all. We will be checking the "chubby grocer's" blog first thing in the morning for a new, post weigh-in post...and the results. We won't be disappointed though if Price has only lost a couple pounds. After all, we kind of like his "chubby grocer" persona.

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