What is the secret behind the success of bakery chain Greggs? - Jayne Dowle

As bleak trading conditions continue to engulf the High Street, there’s good news for Greggs. Sales at the bakery chain have jumped more than a fifth, 20.8 per cent, in the 13 weeks to the end of September, whilst other retailers and supermarkets continue to suffer from falling sales.

What is it doing so right that others are doing wrong? Offering cheap and filling food at a price that people are prepared to pay, clearly.

“Price remains paramount,” says Greggs boss Roisin Currie. “We are seeing inflation easing in areas such as dairy and vegetable oils and less volatility in energy. But we’re still seeing inflation in areas such as proteins and flour.” There are no planned in-store price rises on the horizon, she added.

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I’m partial to a Greggs sausage roll. But with respect to its clear business success, there’s more to it than sausage rolls. Greggs has become something of a cultural shorthand, the butt of jokes that it’s the default fill-up destination for the lazy and feckless, particularly in the North of England, or those lacking the budget to indulge in expensive lunchtime meal deals.

'Greggs has become something of a cultural shorthand'. PIC: Kelvin Stuttard'Greggs has become something of a cultural shorthand'. PIC: Kelvin Stuttard
'Greggs has become something of a cultural shorthand'. PIC: Kelvin Stuttard

However, whatever you might think about Greggs, you’ve got to admit, its business strategists know how to read a market.

Can it only be four years since TV presenter Piers Morgan found himself publicly aghast that Greggs had introduced a vegan sausage roll, muttering something about “PC-ravaged clowns”? Why was he really angry? Because he’s an avowed carnivore? Or because Greggs introducing a vegan product turned those derogatory cultural assumptions on their head?

The company, founded by John Gregg on Tyneside in 1939, opening its first shop in Gosforth, Newcastle, in 1951, has gone from strength to strength in recent years. It has launched 82 net new shops since the start of 2023, taking the total number nationwide past 2,400, reportedly outstripping trendier rivals such as the Subway sandwich shop chain.

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Earlier this year, physicist Dr Robin Smith from Sheffield Hallam University, spent his research time adapting machine learning techniques normally used to look at nuclear reactions to analysing how the presence of Greggs vs Pret a Manger (more sushi rolls than sausage rolls, first opening in Hampstead, north London in 1984) denoted the true division of the North-South divide.

Dr Smith and his machine calculated and compared the locations of both, factoring in the presence of supermarkets Waitrose (with more branches in the south) and Morrisons (founded in Bradford) as a check.

The findings, he argued, prove that where we buy our sandwiches is an unbeatable indication of whether we’re in the North or the South.

It is fair to say that until recently, you were more likely to find a Greggs in areas dominated by lower-income households. And it’s statistically more probable that lower-income equals endemic health problems, benefit dependency, poorer educational attainment and less social mobility.

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So, the skits are part political and social kneejerk, part good old British food snobbery, hobbling meaningful discussion about serious topics such as children’s eating habits and obesity.

Anyway, it might be time for Dr Smith to recalibrate his machine. Greggs says there are plans to reach as many as 145 net openings by the end of 2023 - a record for the number of new shops in a year.

And the march on the south is well underway. In central London, a new site recently opened at Waterloo station, taking the total in the capital to 40. Two more are planned at Richmond station in south-west London, and Westfield London in Shepherd’s Bush.

To cater for sophisticated tastes, the autumn menu includes a spicy chicken and veg bhaji baguette, a cheese and honey mustard toastie, a veg bhaji flatbread and mozzarella and cheddar bites. So far, Mr Morgan has kept his views on such innovations private.

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You’ve got to hand it to Greggs then, and only a curmudgeon – or an irate Piers Morgan – would begrudge its achievements. However, there are some caveats to bear in mind.

The availability of such cheap, cheerful and tasty fast food on (almost) every High Street has to be countered by concern for healthy eating - and yes, I know there are many Greggs products that segue with a decent diet - and supporting other small businesses, in particular food outlets.

Whilst celebrating enterprise, especially in such a tough economic climate, is worthwhile, it should be countered with checks and balances.