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Career interview: Claire Fletcher Category Manager- Ocado

20th April 2022

Claire Fletcher has spent 20 years in Retail buying roles, including time spent at Tesco and Debenhams. Currently working for Ocado as Category Manager, Claire knows all about the ups and downs of the ‘trading floor’ and has had a front-row seat to witness the immense changes across the retail sector over the last two decades. Claire kindly gave us her time to chat through the evolution of the buying role, life at the forefront of retail with Ocado, and the importance of making strategic moves with career development.

Claire, it must be exciting to work for the superstar of UK retail right now! Can you tell us a bit more about your role please?

I’m the Category Manager for Home at Ocado. I manage the buying team encompassing a very broad product category, looking after Cook, Dine, Home, Party, Seasonal, Hardware, Home office, Kids and Clothing. Due to our relationship with M&S we probably work differently to a lot of retailers as we’re dealing with brands and one retail partner, so we need to layer that into our strategy.

How do you find it?

I love my job. Of all the buying roles I’ve had, this one is incredibly demanding and fast-paced. Ocado’s online proposition makes us so agile and it’s one of our biggest strengths. This comes with both benefits and challenges. We can quickly put activations in place that impact our sales figures, so you can feel your impact straight away which is a nice feeling to have. The challenge is managing the amount of trading actions that we can take; we have to be able to prioritise because at any one time we can have 100 ideas that we can put in place. What are the things that are really going to change the dial? Rather than trying to do a little bit of everything and not do it very well!

It is quite a departure from the more traditional retail buying role isn’t it? How would you say buying in retail has changed over time?

Massively. My very first buying role was for a tiny garden company in Hertfordshire. We didn’t have a merchandising team; we did our own ordering and managed the whole process. I then made a sideways move to being a buying admin for Debenhams and the buying role changed dramatically; I had to become far better at trading and knowing what’s going on with competitors. There’s so much more information available now, you must be competitive with the market. Promotions weren’t as honest as they are now and there was a lot of price inflation which came with its benefits in terms of margin, so we’ve had to be smart in the way we’ve worked with our products over the years to make sure we can still maintain that activity and do it in a way that’s profit positive.

Equally the supply chain has changed massively. When I was first sourcing from the far east, the UK was a priority for exports but that isn’t necessarily the case now. We’re definitely starting to see the loss of that advantage in terms of sourcing, so we now need to think much more creatively than before. Teams have got leaner and the expectation for delivery has increased. It is challenging but it’s exciting and fast paced. There’s nothing better than watching a product that you’ve worked on selling and having those numbers come through.

What does stay the same is that there is always somebody leading the pack in each category. It’s just that a lot of those leaders have changed dramatically! The big supermarkets and the influence they have on the market is still relevant but stores like Aldi and Lidl from a GM perspective certainly have become more established. Offering great products at great value just wasn’t as available a few years ago.

Ocado are a huge success story. What’s it like on the inside?

I love being at the forefront. It’s so exciting being involved with a business that’s seen so much success and has so much growth planned. We’re on a journey of understanding what our customer of the future looks like, which as a buyer gives so much scope. It means we can work with our suppliers in an exciting way and talk with them about how we grow and develop together. We want to be working with businesses that are working with us.

What’s your definition of success at work and how has that changed throughout your career?

It’s about enjoying what I’m doing. Over the years I’ve had roles that have been more challenging than others for various reasons, and I’ve had teams and management I haven’t enjoyed working with. One of the most important things to create success is being comfortable and confident in what you’re doing. Coming into work every day and enjoying it! It’s easy to concentrate on a number that you’re being paid or a job title or a structure but for me it’s about getting satisfaction from what I’m doing. Is it stretching me? I’m someone who needs to feel a little bit out my comfort zone. Am I happy and enjoying it? That for me, is worth more than job titles or anything else.

What I really like also is seeing the same people over time; you learn the value of creating a great name for yourself in your industry, because it sees you well into the future. I know people in the industry now that I can call with a challenge and a cry for help, and they will support me. A lot of that is from the foundations of the relationships I’ve built over time.

Speaking about time, Seven was established as a business 20 years ago. Can you remember what you were doing at that time? What was your main learning from that role?

I was working for a supplier. We used to supply people like B&Q and Homebase with bathroom accessories. It was probably the first time in my career when I knew what I wanted to do, and that was the point where I mapped out a strategy. To me, buying looked more exciting, more interesting and had more direct contact with the customer.

If I had told myself in 2002 this is where I’d be now, I’d probably have been a bit disbelieving. I didn’t have the confidence and if I could go back, I’d just say ‘Have some self-belief. If you put your mind to it you will be able to do it. You’re going to have knock backs along the way but you will be able to do it. It’s the right choice and don’t doubt yourself.’

 Have you followed a very linear path through your career, or have you taken side steps?

I’ve definitely taken sideways steps. I encourage anyone to do it; I’ve learnt so much from every role I’ve had. Treat your career in a strategic way; know what’s important to you, what’s the end goal whether it’s in two, five or ten years think creatively about how you can get there. The main reason I went to Tesco was because at that time they had a great reputation for promoting from within and there were lots of roles available, more than the business I was working in at the time. It gave me a different approach to buying. Debenhams was very ‘high-street’ with a very promotional structure whereas buys were much smaller at Tesco and this taught me how to trade differently, to be much tougher with my suppliers and negotiate different types of deals. It broadened my perspective on things.

I’ve had a couple of moments where I’ve stepped out of buying where I was a Product Developer and Account Manager on the supplier side. What that really reinforced for me – as much as I love product – I really love the trading and the moments where we celebrate the successes. Even the times where it’s a tough week and numbers aren’t going the way we planned, there’s still nothing better than the feeling of managing to turn it around and know I’ve made a difference. I can see that so much more directly than when I was working on the supplier side where I had a lot less influence on what goes out the door.

Do you think people are either ‘supplier’ types or ‘client side’?

I think you can go from one to another, it depends what motives you. It also depends on the businesses you’re working for; some suppliers are vibrant and fast-paced and others are much slower and have a smaller base, it’s about finding the right fit for you. I think if it’s something that interests you, you should give it a go. The worst-case scenario is that you go and do something for a year and if it’s not for you and you’ve learnt something and can make the move back!

Thank you so much for your time, Claire!

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