Last year Sainsbury’s launched a new graduate scheme designed specifically to attract graduates with experience and interest in farming, food and fresh produce. There is a choice of routes to take, agriculture or horticulture.
Either route follows a similar format: experience in one of Sainsbury’s stores and head office, followed by three placements of six months each at leading suppliers. For the agricultural route these include suppliers of eggs, meat and milk, whilst I will be based with suppliers of flowers, fruit and veg. In total the scheme lasts two years, which includes relevant training and a project during each placement.
Due to the seasonality of fresh produce, my placements within the horticultural industry don’t strictly follow the six month structure mentioned above. Instead, to gain the most from these placements, I will move around the country and join three suppliers when they are at their busiest. So, after an eight week stint learning about store life in Fulham, and six weeks at Sainsbury’s head office in Holborn, in January I moved to Lincolnshire to start work at Sainsbury’s biggest floral supplier, just four weeks before Valentine’s Day.
I don’t know if you’ve ever pondered how thousands of bouquets are made for Sainsbury’s each day, but it isn’t too complicated. Flowers are grown around the world, principally in the UK, Holland, Kenya and Colombia, made into bouquets on a production line in Lincolnshire, placed in buckets with water (very important) before being sent to stores. However, there are a lot of people involved in ensuring these flowers look their best in store, and to maintain this quality for as long as possible for the customer.
I was working with the technical team and my project included learning about, contributing to and improving the processes in place which provide great quality flowers. For example, I assessed fresh cut flowers arriving from Kenya to check they were to specification and free from disease, spent a number of weeks in the vase life room, testing the life cycle of bouquets and trialling new varieties, as well as identifying the main quality control points within the factory.
I also experienced the two big peaks in the floral calendar: Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Production begins a week before and the long working days test problem solving, production efficiency and teamwork. During these hectic weeks I learnt the most about the retail-floral business, and found the most challenging aspect was to communicate effectively with non-English speaking workers and encourage them to care about the product. The source of quality-related issues was often a lack of knowledge or concern for the delicacy of flowers, and, ultimately, if they do not look good in store, customers won’t buy them.
Following four months in Lincolnshire I moved to a city called Leiden in Holland to experience working at a flower breeder. My project there was to investigate if a partnership could be created between the breeder, the growers, the supplier and Sainsbury’s, with the ultimate goal of using each partner’s expertise to breed new varieties of flowers which are targeted towards specific customer groups. The partnership is in its very early stages, but it is fantastic to be involved in a project which could have such a positive impact on the floral category.
You do need to be flexible and embrace change to gain the most from this scheme, and to accept that, for maybe a year or two, you will be moving every few months. However, it is such a great way to understand the technical side of fresh produce not only at one of the UK’s biggest food retailers, but also from the perspective of growers and suppliers who are absolutely key to us.
My next move is to Kent for four months, working on another innovative project to increase the volume of British grown organic salad in Sainsbury’s stores. It will be a very different challenge from bouquet producing, but one I’m really looking forward to.