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Date(s) - 20th February 2018
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Asda’s re-emergent mojo will need supplier partnerships to thrive


Six weeks into his reign as Asda CEO, there were more tentative green shoots today to suggest Roger Burnley’s long wait for the top job may have been worth it after all.

Today’s results, courtesy of parent company Walmart, are further evidence the underperforming UK supermarket giant is starting to get at least some of its mojo back, with the supermarket notching up its fourth consecutive increase in sales,

Admittedly, like-for-like sales growth of 0.5% in the quarter, compared with the 1.1% growth seen in the previous three months, is no reason yet to get the bunting out. Far from it.

Yet Asda was the only one of the big four to hold its market share in December, with The Grocer reporting last month it was in many ways the surprise performer over the festive season.

However, just as important as the bare financial figures are the early signs that Burnley is now starting to put his stamp on Asda, after an extended “nadir period” that lasted for much of his predecessor Sean Clarke’s reign as well as the final years of namesake Andy, who infamously jumped the gun in predicting those aforementioned green shoots.

Burnley, who has been chief operating officer and deputy CEO since October 2016 but who only took over from Sean Clarke on 1 January, has certainly had plenty of time to work out what seeds needed to be sown.

According to Asda insiders he spent his first months prolifically visiting the coalface of Asda stores, seeing for himself the problems it had suffered with poor availability and service, as well as chaotic pricing and promotional strategies.

But the former Sainsbury’s supply chain boss, who first served during the glory years of Asda under Archie Norman and Allan Leighton, knows that, beyond these back to basics necessities, Asda has its work cut out to recover some of the magic of that golden era.

It is that much harder to define a sense of what Asda actually stands for that will ultimately define his leadership and, largely, whether its recovery is one built on rocks or sand, with the discounters Aldi and Lidl, as well as resurgent supermarket rivals, all too ready and willing to knock it down again.

Speaking to suppliers at its IGD trade briefing earlier this month, Burnley is said to have declared “we want to have fun again”, which struck a chord with many of those thousands of suppliers who had flocked to Harrogate to hear his first address as leader.

Others commented on the contrast in the body language between Burnley and his management team, including new chief merchandising officer Jesús Lorente, and the regimes that went before.

“Less arrogant drum beating” is how one supplier describes the difference, and it is true that all too often in the past Asda has talked a good game about how it will blow away its opposition with price investment, store makeover plans and investments in online services running into the hundreds of millions, forgetting the key importance of carrying their suppliers with them along the way.

After the failure of Andy Clarke’s Project Renewal strategy, quietly canned by his successor, Asda has tried to get back on the front foot this year with a renewed onslaught on price.

Blitz 

Last month more than 1,000 everyday items were cut by up to 50% in price, although Burnley himself recognised at the IGD briefing that the £14 on average this will save shoppers is just the start of a renewed blitz to compete with the discounters.

“Rolled back staying back” is the phrase that was repeatedly used at the IGD event by Burnley and he did so again today as he welcomed the results as a sign Asda was starting to see its investment pay off.

But Walmart bosses also made clear today that they are not yet satisfied with Asda’s value proposition, which appears to suggest a huge part of its focus will remain on how it can get more competitive with the likes of Aldi and Lidl.

Yet even with pockets the size of Walmart, Asda will only ever go so far by competing with the discounters. It needs to give shoppers other reasons to visit its stores. And for this it needs suppliers on board.

This is why it will perhaps be Burnley’s success in making sure Asda makes good its promises on renewed innovation and partnership with suppliers that will be just as key as Walmart’s investments in price.

Over the last few years it has too often alienated and, as brought to light by the shocking results of Christine Tacon’s recent probe, effectively bullied suppliers to try to get them to pay for its competitiveness.

Under Burnley the early signs of an alternative approach are interesting, including a new innovation awards programme for suppliers and a pledge to match-fund exclusive NPD for Asda.

But he is experienced enough to know that he needs to do much more if he is to get suppliers fully back on board if the Asda recovery is to continue.

The phrase “more work to do”, crucially, does not only apply to price.

Ian Quinn