Ken Morrison – A simple business philosophy

Recently the UK supermarket chain Morrisons has been in the news, regarding the state of the business, potential job cuts, and a lambasting for the Board at the recent company AGM from former chairman and straight-talking Yorkshireman Sir Ken Morrison, son of the company’s founder.

While CEO of the company, he was known for reportedly “skip diving” on visits to his Morrison’s stores – sifting through the bins to see what was being thrown out and wasted. Sir Ken has a simple philosophy to the supermarket business – “shop in your own shops, get to know your customers and don’t make presidential visits“.

It seemed to work well for him, for Morrisons was profitable for good number of years, until, in 2004, Morrisons acquired Safeway UK (by then already independent from it’s US namesake), a company who I used to work for as a teenager.

One of the things which used to irk me about the way that Safeway was managed was the way that the senior management conducted visits of the stores. When it was known that the regional manager was visiting, significant amounts of overtime became available. The store would be scrubbed top to bottom, the normally messy behind the scenes stockrooms would be tidied up, the shelves would be neatly filled and faced up, and almost every checkout would be open.

This resulted in the management not seeing the real experience, but some sort of show, or “shop in a bottle”.

The very “presidential visits” that Ken Morrison speaks of.

To borrow Sir Ken’s turn of phrase, they left with a “bullshit” experience of what shopping in one of their stores was like. They thought it was okay, and didn’t suck.

Even on short notice “unannounced” visits, somehow the store was tipped off, either by other local managers or by more junior flunkies of the regional managers, fearing for their own jobs if a shop was seen in disarray. Of course, overtime was rapidly offered, and 90% of the time you would take it because you wanted the money.

It seems that Morrisons’ management have picked up this behaviour along with a number of other bad habits from the Safeway acquisition.

One of my own pet hates is the way they build-out the aisle ends with free-standing stacks of items on promotion. This narrows the aisle width, reducing circulation area, and making it harder to manoeuvre your trolley, for fear of knocking over this teetering pile of products.

Obviously the idea is you take something from this wobbly pile to reduce it in size!

Tesco still aren’t much better. It’s a confusing environment of bright yellow price tags, contradictory “special non-offers”, and shouty shelf-edge “barkers”. It’s just a meh experience, and that’s after you’ve battled your way in past all the TVs, clothes and other crap they sell in the big stores.

Also, you’ve got to look if the business model is wrong? Are Morrisons working to a growth-centric business model? In a saturated market such as grocery shopping, the growth most likely has to come from stealing market share from a competitor. This likely comes with a higher cost of sale, as you’ve got to do something to make that fickle customer choose you today. Should Morrisons instead be looking after it’s own customers and working to a retention-based business model?

Rather than providing an unpleasant and stressful experience, do something to make your customers want to come back. You can’t compete on price alone or Aldi and Lidl will take your business away, and the niche high-ends are dominated by the likes of Waitrose and M&S.

I can’t help feeling that devouring Safeway was a meal that still gives Morrisons indigestion to this day, and they would maybe do better following Ken Morrison’s three simple tenets by which he ran the business for many years: good staff, good suppliers, loyal customers.

Read the BBC article and watch the interview with Ken Morrison

BA’s Heathrow Lounge Food, Pt 2: The Lord of the Flies?

Following on from my recent post regarding a rather poor Environmental Health Report for BA’s “exclusive” Concorde Room, Hillingdon Council, the local authority responsible for Heathrow, have conducted further inspections of BA’s lounge operations at the airport.

This time, the largest lounge in T5, the “Galleries Club South” scored 2 out of 5, like it’s neighbour.

The report for this lounge highlights a number of basic food hygiene failings that seem to indicate a real lack of care.

Continue reading “BA’s Heathrow Lounge Food, Pt 2: The Lord of the Flies?”

BA’s Heathrow Lounge Food: Past it’s sell-by date?

Something of a first world problem admittedly, but it’s recently come to the attention of the various frequent flyer circles that BA’s “flagship” lounges at it’s Heathrow hub, the T5 Concorde Room and First Class Lounge recently only scored 2 (out of 5) on a recent food hygiene inspection.

The low score places this “exclusive” venue (to paraphrase BA), reserved specifically for it’s “top customers”, into the bottom 10% of food service premises in the UK. This is something of a last straw for BA’s loyal frequent flyers who have already been upset by a perceived reduction in the quality and service offered by the lounges since the contract for running the food service operation at all BA’s UK lounges were switched to a new operator earlier this year.

There have been complaints of less choice, simple service failures such as grubby cups, glasses and plates put out for customers to use, and used, dirty pots not being regularly cleared away, food not being cooked through properly, and a previously reasonable hot buffet being replaced with troughs of stodgy “gloop” – unpleasant wet food.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information request, the local authority responsible for the inspection, Hillingdon Council, have made the full contents of the report available, highlighting a catalogue of basic food safety disasters:

  • Out-of-date food in the kitchens
  • Multiple food preparation areas being sufficiently dirty to be in need of immediate cleaning
  • “High-risk” food such as prepared sandwiches and cooked meats being insufficiently chilled
  • Hot buffet food being kept at a sufficiently low temperature to increase risk
  • Cross-contamination between raw and cooked food
  • Kitchen maintenance problems such as holes in the walls and floor
  • Inadequate documentation of staff training

BA have so far been tight-lipped on the matter, anecdotal reports suggesting that senior BA figures consider this just to be some “noisy people on the Internet” which probably highlights that they don’t get it and have their head firmly in the sand. Does this indicate a level of disrespect within BA for it’s customers?

To their credit BaxterStorey meanwhile have issued a statement which, while conciliatory in tone and recognises the failings to some extent, largely seems to fob the problem off on needing to “refurbish” the kitchen.

This really isn’t a brilliant response. Remember, we’re talking about BA’s flagship lounge at it’s flagship airport.

In terms of apologising, what should BA do?

One of the questions among the frequent flyer community has been over BA’s handling of this. While BA’s sub-contractor has decided to issue a statement, there’s been nothing from BA to the most regular lounge guests, it’s frequent flyers.

It’s my opinion that there’s only one way BA can approach this:

with openness, transparency, responsibility and accountability

I know that’s probably a tough ask of a large multi-national corporation with a slick PR machine which is used to deny accountability for everything from delays to lost luggage.

You may ask why the frequent flyers care so much about getting a response from BA, or why BA should care so much to communicate in an frank and honest way with it’s customers?

The frequent flyers care about getting a spin-free honest reply, because they have made a financial and emotional investment in BA. To earn the magic Silver and Gold cards to get them in the privacy of the Galleries lounges, they have spent a lot of money and time with the airline.

They’ve been good, regular customers, demonstrated loyalty to BA, and so have a built an expectation of being dealt with respectfully and fairly in return. That trust has been betrayed by BA and BaxterStorey.

To feed them spin is likely to just increase the levels of angst and venom. The frequent flyers are actively looking for a reason to forgive.

The more honest and fair BA are with their response the more likely they are to be forgiven by it’s community of regular passengers.

See this as an opportunity to set themselves apart from their competitors. It’s not a disaster that must be avoided. Approach it head on.

You’ve been let down, we failed to meet your expectations. We’ve let our supplier take their eye off the ball. We’re sorry. You deserve better. We’ll do better. Here’s how…

Be honest about the mistakes that led to this, and what’s going to happen to make it better.

Most importantly, mean it then do it.

My local bakery is going stale…

When we moved here, we were really happy to see that the local cluster of shops (useful stuff like Post Office, Chemist, Dry Cleaners, a small super market) that serves our neighbourhood also had one of a dying breed, a traditional baker’s shop, part of a small chain owned by a family business.

Sure, the bread wasn’t made in the shop, they had a more modern bakery in a light industrial unit about 30 minutes drive away which supplied all their shops and wholesale customers, but they sold great tasting loaves with a fantastic light texture and crispy crust.

My stomach really can’t hack cheap supermarket bread, either bulked up with high percentages of soy flour to help improve the consistency of the crumb, or made with more yeast than is necessary to reduce the time needed to prove. Both upset my insides, causing me bloating, discomfort and in some cases, pretty bad indigestion.

So I was delighted when shortly after moving here, the indigestion just stopped dead. The only thing which really changed in my diet was where the bread was coming from (aside from possibly the water coming out of the tap). I even tested this theory by eating regular mass-produced bread, and the gut rot came back within a few days.

Relieved to put a calmer stomach down to the nice crusty bread on my doorstep, it just reinforced all that was good about our new neighbourhood.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. While the bakery hasn’t closed down, it has recently changed hands, and is now being supplied by the new owners – still a small, local bakery, but it turns out, it isn’t quite the same.

Not to be daunted, we tried a few things from there over the last couple of weeks, only to feel let down.

The breads don’t look the same: uneavenly risen, with a pale and flaccid crust concealing a spongy, yet heavy, dense, interior, with a cotton-wool-like texture. Neither do they smell the same: there’s an overriding smell of yeast about the new owner’s bread.

The old owner’s recipe would go stale by going dry and hard, and would seldom go mouldy. The new owner’s bread goes mouldy, because it seems to retain the moisture for longer.

Sadly, this also extends to their pastries, which leave a feeling like the inside of your your mouth has been coated in a layer of vaseline (I guess they don’t use butter, but some sort of margarine or veg shortening) as well as being so sweet that you get the shakes.

While we’re glad that it’s stayed a bakery, rather than becoming yet another hairdresser, nail bar, beauticians or (our first!) fried chicken shop, we’re gutted that we’ve lost our supply of traditionally baked bread that was on our doorstep.

Virgin on the inedible

In the glory days of the railway, the British Rail restaurant car breakfast was something of a treat. Cereals, toast, juice, and full English – offered to you “service Anglaise” from a tray, so you could get what you wished. They even had kippers.

Even despite “modernisation” of the BR buffet car under InterCity in the 1980s and early 90s – think along the lines of moving away from Mr Kipling cakes and Maxpax coffee to croissants and the chewy microwaved burger – the Great British breakfast was left well alone, lest the Great British businessman kick up a stink…

Retro BR breakfast service complete with retro hairstyle...
The hair is a dead giveaway as to which era this BR breakfast belongs! Photo: NRM

For a while, this even survived into privatisation, most notably perpetuated by the late GNER: “Great” for so many reasons, and not just the fact that even when travelling in the cheap seats one could still sit in the restaurant car and eat real food at 100mph-plus, as I often did.

Where freshly cooked food is still available on British trains, the current trend is a move away from the classic restaurant car to an at-seat service for 1st Class passengers only, called “complimentary” by the train companies, as opposed to inclusive, so they are able to weasel their way out if the service can’t be provided as advertised. Generally, this service includes a cooked breakfast, light food across the day and sometimes a cooked evening meal, which is what Virgin Trains provide on their routes out of London.

I’d recently travelled from London up to the Northwest, and by a quirk of the UK railway fares structure, it was one of those trips where by booking in advance, it was cheaper to go 1st Class as opposed to Standard. “Great”, I think, it’s a train where they serve breakfast, and while I didn’t expect it to be anywhere near as good as in days of yore (as they never are!), I’ll happily admit to looking forward to it.

I’d not travelled VT’s 1st Class where they served hot breakfast in a while (about 3 or 4 years, I think), and the last time I should have had a VT breakfast, it wasn’t available, which meant I was kind of hoping for more success this time.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I was offered “the last rasher of bacon”, which was overdone to the extent of being tooth-breakingly crispy – you couldn’t get a fork in it, a “grilled” tomato almost reduced to mush, some overdone black pudding, a dry-looking hash brown, and a rubber egg. I took one bite, and pushed the plate away, but not before I got a pic of it, so disappointed to be served such obviously second-rate tosh…

Hope you like your bacon crispy?

“No more bacon…”, I was told. It seems that the people sat further up from me could only be offered similarly incinerated sausage. I asked one of the crew to take it away, and I tweeted the above pic to VT’s (excellent) Twitter desk, to see what they had to say…

Either my rejection of the burnt offerings, or the message to the Twitter desk, got someone’s attention, as a few minutes later, this arrived…

Bacon and eggs, was it?

“No more bacon”, apparently. Hmm. I didn’t notice us stop to pick some up, either.

But, nice save of face by the crew in the end, though the sad thing is that I had to complain before something was done. Really, that overcooked stuff shouldn’t have been served in the first place. Surely the person with the tray noticed what she had was burned? Wasn’t she ashamed to serve it?

This isn’t the only beef about the alleged “1st Class” service offered on that train. Things could have been done with a bit more style, and thought for the passenger.

For instance, there seemed to be an assumption by the crew that people sat in 1st Class knew what was on offer, and what to ask for. There were no menu cards, and no explanation offered about what was available.

One of the crew members walked past with a closed up solid-sided trolley (like an airline food trolley) mumbling “Anything from the snack trolley?” – wouldn’t this have been better if the trolley was more open plan so we could see what was available, or if the person had told us what they had inside the trolley?

Later in the journey, between Crewe and Warrington (and by this point, we were 30 minutes late because of a signalling problem near Stafford), the crew were starting to collect cups and things in, it looked like they would change catering crew at Preston so they were clearing away, and putting out fresh cups, etc.

At no point did anyone ask “May I clear away?”, or “Can I get you anything else?” – your place setting was just cleared away, seemingly with an unspoken message of “Right then, that’s all you’re getting”.

Unfortunately the train then ran into more trouble between Warrington and Preston (faulty windscreen wipers on the North end cab, beaten into submission by the relentless Northern rain, it seems). Initially, the train was going to be reversed by manoeuvring around a triangle of junctions (for North American readers, you’ll know this as a “wye”) just south of Wigan, so the good cab would be on the “correct” end of the train for continuing toward Glasgow. That would have taken another 30-40 minutes. Eventually, after some dithering, this reversal was abandoned and the train continued to Preston and terminated there, an hour late, where it could be swapped with another Pendolino.

By this point, after a 30 minute-plus delay, passengers in Standard are entitled to certain complimentary things (water, tea, coffee, until it runs out) from the Shop. Were those of us seated in the “good seats” taken care of during this period? Unfortunately not. Laying on some tea and coffee would have been fairly simple, and would have given the impression that our custom mattered to Virgin Trains, but it didn’t happen.

You’ve got to question why this is? Are some Virgin Trains’ staff feeling undervalued and demotivated? Uncertain of the future following the franchising fiasco? Or poorly selected and trained? Or simply only allowed to follow the prescribed service, bound by process and discouraged from using initiative?

Maybe it was summed up by a nearby passenger who said to me “If you think that breakfast was bad, you should try the evening meal. East Coast have better food.”

Are us Brits too backward about coming forward? Or is the fact that it is “complimentary” somehow meant to remove expectations of a decent service?

People petitioned hard for a rethink for Virgin to retain the West Coast franchise back in the summer. I agreed that this was the sensible thing to do, especially once the previous franchise process was declared invalid, it made sense to let Virgin continue. Now that’s happened, you’d think they would be wanting to reward passengers for showing such faith in them, and that the support was well earned, right?

Virgin’s basic railway product out of Euston isn’t horrific, with frequent trains and quick journey times (when it’s not blighted by engineering work), but with a little more attention to detail and some effort (and lining the seats up with the windows!), couldn’t it be really, really great?

Disclaimer: I should probably note that I am an ex-UK railway employee, having worked for BR in 1994/1995. That means I’m used to the consequences of disruption, but it’s how you handle it that makes the difference. Note that I pay full price for my tickets these days, this one included.

Why it’s crap at Tesco

I was reading this article in the Metro (the free paper you get at railway stations, for the uninitiated) about how the once mighty supermarket Tesco was having a rough year (issuing profits warnings, that sort of thing), generally falling out of favour with the British shopper, who seemed to have been neglected while senior Tesco management were focused on growth at all costs, especially internationally.

I don’t like Tesco, and generally avoid shopping there. Here’s a couple of reasons why:

  • As the article says, it’s a fairly dull and uninspiring experience.
  • The shelf-edges at a Tesco are heavily cluttered with promotional signs (known in the trade as “barkers”) advertising “special offers” – it’s often hard to find what you want in the morass of brightly coloured shelf-edge clutter.
  • Special offers which frequently turn out to be non-offers.
  • When you’re stuck for a quick lunch and the nearest option is a Tesco, the pre-packed sandwiches are dreadful – a bland, rather un-inspiring selection, and what’s more, they tend to use meat from non-UK suppliers – for instance “Bacon from the EU” (could be Brit, I suppose!) or “Chicken imported from Brazil and/or Thailand”, presumably because it’s cheaper than supporting British producers? Given the choice, I’d avoid these.
  • Tesco don’t seem to be focused on doing one thing well. They seem to be trying to be everything to everyone.

There are probably other reasons why I’m not struck on Tesco, but these were the ones which immediately sprang to mind when I read the article.

If you want a no-nonsense, bland shopping experience to pick up your essentials, that’s something Aldi do really well. Tesco don’t appear to have responded enough to the changing market, and seem rather stuck in the 1990s.

Recent IPv4 Depletion Events

Those of you who follow these things can’t have missed that the RIPE NCC had got down to it’s last /8 of unallocated IPv4 space last week.

They even made a cake to celebrate…

Photo (and cake?) by Rumy Spratley-Kanis

This means the RIPE NCC are down to their last 16 million IPv4 IP addresses, and they can’t get another big block allocated to them, because there aren’t any more to give out.

Continue reading “Recent IPv4 Depletion Events”