Four months after winning the title of Butcher’s Shop of the Year 2011, Scottish butcher John Davidson is still reflecting on his hard-won success. “It’s great that we won,” he says. “Although we were doing very well before, it has given us even more credibility — and it’s nice that people think you are the best and that you deserve the accolade.”
Before opening his shop in Inverurie, John clocked up more than 15 years in the meat wholesale trade, supplying Scotch beef, lamb and pork to outlets across the UK and Europe, John is keen to share his passion for meat with his customers. He went into the butchery trade straight out of school, starting, aged 16, at the local abattoir, where he worked his way up to slaughterman before moving into the sales side of the business. This varied experience stood him in good stead when a shop became vacant in Inverurie in Aberdeenshire in 2004 and he seized the chance to set up his own retail outlet. “I borrowed and begged to get enough money together to get here,” he said “but here we are.”
John maintains that being able to see all the different sides of the business has definitely helped him to develop his company and retain a highly competitive edge, while catering for the premium end of the market. “Having come from a sales background is hugely beneficial. You understand the wholesale market and how you can benefit from buying in quantity. You know how to buy meat properly, yet understand the differences and the costings inside out,” he says.
As crucial as maintaining healthy margins are, Davidsons does so without compromising on quality, priding itself on offering a wide range of fresh, locally-sourced meat products. Much of the meat comes from the family farms, or from other local sources, including three local abattoirs and Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ flagship Thainstone Centre and, as their tagline promises, it is well handled, well hung and well cut. “Knowing where our meat comes from is very important — not only to us but to our customers,” says John, who feels that buying local ensures provenance and quality.
Attention to detail
It was partly that focus on quality which captivated the Butcher’s Shop of the Year judges. Chairman of the judging panel Fred A’Court, says: “On one level there is a simple, obvious answer to why John Davidson’s business is so good — attention to detail. Meat is so precisely cut and some of the added-value products are like carefully crafted works of art. The range, the artistry of product construction and the flair of innovation, mixed with ordinary, everyday, workmanlike products, takes a shop like Davidsons a long way in a competition like Butcher’s Shop of the Year.”
It is not only the judges who have been impressed. Since 2004, turnover has grown from £200k per annum to well over £1m during 2010. “It has been hard work — a lot of hard work with a lot of tears and risk,” says John. “But now we’re going flat out all the time.” One of the challenges lay in expanding the shop’s offering. “One of the problems with the shop was the small number of products,” he says. “There were only 40 originally, but now we run in excess of 500 product lines, which can all be adjusted at the click of the fingers. We always carry a large amount of stock on all products.”
Product expansion on this kind of scale has involved taking a creative look at new product development, which has resulted in a wide range of pies, slices and cooked products. These range from celebratory pies — such as the wedding pie cooked in celebration of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in April — to products such as ‘crazy crackling’, a lightly salted pre-packed snack that utilises pig skins which would otherwise go to waste, and the award-winning Clootie dumpling, which has been particularly well received by the foodservice sector.
Although expansion in the current climate can often be fraught with danger, the popularity of these products has promoted Davidsons to develop a multi-purpose off-site factory on the farm, to house and develop its product range.
Over the past few years, sales have been pushed hard through promotions, leaflet drops, exhibitions and agricultural shows — while Davidsons has been quietly amassing a clutch of awards, which boost the shop’s profile. As well as being three times winner of MTJ’s Scottish Butcher’s Shop of the Year title, it has won medals at the Euro Beef 2011 competition in Belgium and enjoyed success at the Q Guild evaluations, Scotch Premier competitions, and the Aberdeen and Northern Marts group, as well as various Scottish agricultural and carcase competitions.
Yet John says it has taken dedication to weather the tough conditions over the last year. “Foremost in everyone’s mind, across all aspects of retail, is to get through this period of the unknown,” he says. “Everyone is struggling, but we’re lucky that Inverurie is a bustling little market town with a good, strong high street.”
He explains that the company has run many more promotions than before — across bakery, fresh meat and food on-the-go. “We don’t do specials to get rid of stock, we buy in the meat specially at the right price, which we pass on to customers, to keep the margins healthy,” he says, adding that they have to be quite careful, nonetheless. “It’s a very high-class shop, with high-class products, so our customers are not used to buying cheap — a lot of our customers are looking for something and expect to pay for it.”
In addition to the best-selling beef, the fish counter has proved quite a draw. “It’s a small counter, but the turnover per square foot is exceptional,” says John. “We put it in two years ago, when the local fish shop closed down, and we saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the market.” Although it only occupies a small space and stocks a range of core fish products from inshore fishing boats at Peterhead, John says it has worked well, as it provides a good service to customers which keeps them coming back.
The Butcher’s Shop of the Year judges also noted the strength of marketing and branding, with the distinctive black, silver and gold livery percolating throughout the business — from outside signage to ticketing to recipe leaflets for consumers.
Over the last year, the business has invested significantly in its branding, bringing out new product packaging, refreshing the logo and redesigning the Inverurie shop both internally and externally, as well as opening its first concession within Dobbies Garden World in Aberdeen. The business has also looked further afield, with an online shop, and a presence on Twitter. “The way everything is co-ordinated and integrated is impressive, both in the shop and online,” comments A’Court. “In this day and age, butchers ignore the new technology of websites, computerised management systems and social networking at their peril. Here again, Davidsons seems to be one step ahead of the pack with a presence that seems to be everywhere.”
One of the major innovations set up recently is an intranet, which links the firm’s 20 or so staff across all its sites, facilitating better communication as well as information-sharing on areas such as health and safety, COSHE and HACCP. Added benefits are the forums, allowing staff to suggest ideas for new products, which can then be trialled in the shop. The intranet has also been designed to help with the administration of the business, both in organising staff shifts, holidays and payment, but also in suppliers and stock, which helps to simplify costing and calculating margins.
“It was a lot of work to set up,” admits John, “but it has been great for us and very useful. It can compare costings, so you can literally see how much a steak pie is costing you at that moment. It calculates it, so you can see at a glance what you margins are.”
The potential of this technology is certainly not lost on John, and he is currently developing a state-of-the-art order management system aimed at streamlining the process, and drastically cutting down on the work involved in a manually-entered system. Using the latest tablet and smartphone technology, it aims to streamline the stocking and ordering processes and enable better management within the multi-location business integrated via the web, helping improve margins even further.
However, as well as sophisticated systems, John acknowledges his team as crucial in the success of the business and sees training as an integral to this. “Exceptional service is what we want,” John says, “and being absolutely professional. It’s the basis of all our training.”
It is increasingly important for businesses to know the benefits available to them from government bodies, agencies and how to take full advantage of them — and this is where Davidsons has shown it is keen to invest in its people. Last year, John even had his 65-year-old father on an apprenticeship course, one of nine butchers from the shop on government grant-funded training schemes.
As A’Court concludes: “Davidsons is an asset to the town of Inverurie and John himself is an asset to the business. And with his knowledge, his butchery skills and his communication abilities he is now at the stage of his life and career where he can also become a huge asset to the wider meat industry.”
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