Every time I head back “home”, to the North-west of England, I invariably stop at a Booths.
It’s akin to a religious rite, to visit the supermarket that many Northerners regard as “ours”. For a chain just 28-strong, spread across Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire, and resolutely middle-class, Booths has a firm grip on the region’s psyche.
The brand has been described as the “Waitrose of the North”. Except it’s not really Waitrose. There are touches that are the same but they’re also different. Go to Booths, and you will find shelves of locally-sourced products, the stores are adorned with giant photographs and references to farmers, who, in many cases, live and toil nearby. Stand at a checkout and it’s quite likely you will be treated to the assistant inquiring after your wellbeing. No one ever appears to be in a hurry in a Booths. They appear to be at one with the pace of life in their often rural surroundings.
They look after their own, and are admired for it. Three years ago, Booths rebranded its own-label milk as Fair Milk, and upped the amount it paid to the dairy farmers, making the company the highest payer.
There’s an extended farm shop quality to the aisles. The prices may not be cheap but you’re left feeling that whatever is on sale is good and honest.
Now, consternation reigns: Booths is reportedly up for sale. Having been clobbered by Storm Desmond that saw several of its branches damaged, Booths made a loss of £6.3m in the 12 months to March 2016. Earlier this year, in May, chief executive Chris Dee resigned.
Edwin Booth, 62, is the fifth generation Booth to run the firm, which was founded in 1847 in Blackpool by tea dealer Edwin Henry Booth. The current Edwin has asked investment bank Rothschild to gather potential takeover bids. His relatives still speak for 96 per cent of the shares, with the rest belonging to staff. They are thought to be seeking between £130m and £150m.
There should be no shortage of interest. David Webster, the former chairman and co-founder of Safeway in the UK, one of the finest food retailers of recent memory, and no slouch at judging a good or bad business, tried to buy out Booths several times.
Despite the encroachment of Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl, not to mention online, Booths held steady. “One thought Booths would have disappeared ages ago but it jolly well hasn’t,” said Webster. “It is obviously doing an outstanding job for its customers.”
Waitrose had a nibble in 2008, but again the deal was rebuffed (the two then formed a buying partnership).
The hope in the North is that pride will be maintained, that Edwin and his kin will not find a purchaser, not at the price they’re wanting (some rumours put their valuation considerably higher). Booths will carry on, flying the independent flag.
Sadly, that is an unrealistic prospect. However smart it is – and Booths has led the field for innovation – and however terrific the offering and however much it appeals to those who want to source their groceries from farmers they can name and, in some instances, even know, Booths is struggling to compete.
With so few outlets it can’t match consistently the big players on profits and margin. This has been a tough period economically in the North, which has lacked the resilience of the South. Austerity and lack of investment are hitting hard. The love of Booths – and it is amazing just how many people profess to adore the brand – only goes skin deep. The discounters (which are increasingly proving no slouches when it comes to quality) are growing ever more popular.
In the locations where Booths is based, the distances consumers have to travel can be large. After a slow start, internet buying is on the rise. Again, without substantial investment, Booths is vulnerable.
If it comes, the disposal will mark the passing of something special. Of course it’s business, and the lines of Booths have shown themselves to be just as capable over 170 years of crushing resistance from other, smaller shops as any of the nationally-known giants famed for their aggression.
It’s possible, too, that the name, and with it, history and tradition, will be preserved, that Booths will go to Waitrose (the popular choice), part of the mutually-owned John Lewis Partnership, with similar values and reputation.
One rumour even has Wholefoods, the high-end US operator, stepping in. Certainly, Wholefoods is at the right end of the spectrum, and it equally likes to highlight where its goods originate, in not dissimilar folksy terms. But Wholefoods is also resolutely American in approach. It’s difficult to imagine the natives of Kirkby Lonsdale displaying much enthusiasm for Thanksgiving celebrations and Yankee pale ale.
Just as likely as Waitrose is Aldi or Lidl adding to their bulging portfolios. They need space, for their stores and for car parks, and Booths has exactly what they’re looking for, without the hassle and vast expense of purchasing sites and interminable planning inquiries.
Whatever occurs, it will mark a sad passing. A Northern bastion will have succumbed to forces that care little for passion and slowness.
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and executive director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm.
Source: Independent Business News