A veteran at enriching Ritchies

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National Marketing General Manager Jarrod Swaine, after 36 years at Ritchies Stores, talks relationships, rewards and respect with Retail World.

Jarrod Swaine

When did you first join Ritchies? What have your roles at the business entailed?

I first joined Ritchies as a casual 36 years ago, working at our Towerhill Road store in Frankston, Victoria. From there I moved into store management, then had a supervisory role which then morphed into a part-time buying and supervising role briefly, before eventually taking on the buying full time as our store numbers grew.

When I first started, Ritchies was only around eight stores. As we grew further, the role expanded to take on marketing, store development, and more recently, energy efficiencies. Today, Ritchies owns and operates 76 supermarkets, most with liquor stores, up the eastern seaboard, spanning three states. This year marks Ritchies’ 150th birthday.   

How have you ensured Ritchies evolves with the times?

Personally having an active involvement with all new store and refurb designs as well as merchandise allowed us to build and create concepts in partnership with suppliers, as well as introducing new concepts from both overseas and domestically, quickly and in line with current trends.

What have been some of the major challenges along the way?

From a buying perspective, one of the challenges we constantly deal with is the constant changes in supplier account management. Indies by nature are a difficult business for any supplier to deal with, so they tend to use us as a training ground for the chains. This often results in account managers lasting less than two years. This then has a flow-through effect on our business, while the new account manager has to learn the ropes and their own limitations. Where we’ve had an account manager for many years, their understanding of our business is at a much higher level and they’re generally able to achieve superior results.

Government regulations have consistently thrown up challenges along the way in regard to compliance, and while at the time they always seem to be of a significant nature, over time they just become the ‘norm’.

The Metcash-retailer relationship would, up until recently, have been the most talked about challenge between retailers and suppliers. We’re in a unique situation worldwide where the wholesaler owns our banner but not the stores, and this creates many challenges that we deal with on a daily basis. Whenever two businesses have to work together but share the one ‘pie’ there will always be arguments over who should get what size ‘slice’. Having worked with this model for many decades, you learn to work around it to the best of your ability.

Lastly and most recently would have to be COVID-19. In 36 years, I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I hope we never do again. While it has delivered all supermarkets significant additional sales, the impacts locally and abroad are enormous, and the full effect is yet to be felt. Our hearts go out to all those who’ve lost a loved one or suffered a job loss or business closure as a result of this unprecedented event.

We continue to try to source high-demand product and ensure our teams and our shoppers are practising social distancing to protect both themselves and their families throughout this global crisis.

How would you describe your management style and the way you work with stakeholders of Ritchies? 

I’ve always encouraged members of my various teams to think through any issues they encounter, and to come up with solutions to their problems before bringing them to me to solve for them. Encouraging the team to be self-thinking pays dividends when senior management may not be around to give them an answer. If they can weigh up the cost implication of their decision and balance this against the outcome, then they’ll generally make smarter decisions in the long run.

Given the long tenure of all the senior team in Ritchies, we interact very well and respect each other’s skills and capabilities. We don’t have layers of management that bog down decisions, so we’re able to react quickly to changes in the market. We still have varying opinions on different issues, and don’t always see eye to eye, but respect that everyone is only able to argue based on their individual parts of the business, and the key goal is to achieve the best outcome for the business.

Ritchies has a reputation for ranging a wide variety of products, including many smaller, local brands. What do you look for when considering new ranges and how can brands get your attention?

Yes, Ritchies has always looked for points of difference outside of the mainstream range available through Metcash. This has been amplified since the introduction of the Fine Food and Wine concept where we’ve added close to 4,000 new lines into our range. This tends to be the opposite of our chain counterparts, who are always looking for ways to reduce their range.

The type of lines we’re looking for are those that are bespoke and unique, be it locally produced, or an aspirational ingredient to a meal or recipe. Lines that are of a premium nature and not widely available in the chains feature prominently in our Fine Food and Wine stores.

Ritchies has been awarded nationally and internationally for its stores. What role have you played in store design/layout and where do you get your ideas?

The design of all our new and refurb stores has been one of my favourite parts of my varied job functions on a daily basis. The design of these stores has been the culmination of many overseas and domestic field trips, looking at what others are doing, trending products and concepts, and bringing them together in the one store.

The interaction with our fresh food teams has also allowed them to develop in their roles and played an integral part in these designs, allowing them to bring in their own knowledge and to be adventurous with ranging.

Some of these new concepts have worked very well, while some haven’t lived up to expectations. Key is to not be precious, identifying the ones that underperform and either modifying or removing them from future designs, while keeping an open mind to other emerging trends.

What’s next for you and Ritchies?

Further expansion of our Fine Food and Wine model is high on the agenda, with another five new and refurb stores locked in over the next 18 months under this premium branding. Ritchies is also always on the lookout for new store opportunities. Whether it’s existing operators wanting to sell or new greenfield sites, all opportunities are carefully considered.

We have plenty to keep us busy at the moment with the COVID-19 virus impacting the market and evolving on a daily basis. The immediate future is unclear, but one thing is certain: we evolve throughout the current challenges and come out the other end as a much stronger and tighter knit business, a lot more focused on each other.

On a personal note, I love Australia and have had several long trips around this magnificent country. I had another trip planned, a 10-week long-service-leave 4WD trip with my wife, Lynette, who works alongside me in the business, but this unfortunately was cancelled due to border closures. I will reschedule this now to another time when things return to normal.