I’ve commented before on how Amazon tends to keep its recruitment close to its chest and this week it has emerged that former Sainsbury’s director of commercial operations Matt Birch has been working with the company since May in a director role with a focus on scoping out sites for physical stores, according to The Times.
The fact that Amazon is looking to open new stores in the UK doesn’t count as news. Rumours were rife around the turn of the year that is was a candidate to pick up some of the stores relinquished by Sainsbury’s and Asda as part of their ultimately thwarted merger and with 17 Amazon Go stores now operating in the US it is surely only a question of when not if it begins rolling out physical formats, beyond its existing Whole Foods stores, in the UK.
The hiring of high-flier Birch suggests that its property plans have stepped up apace. Birch has a degree in land economy from Cambridge University and has spent the majority of his career in property and commercial roles.
Early in his career, he took the somewhat unusual step of working as property director for a German coffee retail chain, Tchibo, before leaving to join Sainsbury’s in 2007.
He worked as director of assets and estates for the grocer before spending just over a year running Sainsbury’s stores in the North West as a development move to expand his understanding of the business.
Birch returned to HQ as director of retail and property finance before assuming the role of director of commercial operations in 2015, which included some format development work and responsibility for the convenience channel.
He left Sainsbury’s in 2017 to join Central England Co-operative as trading executive where he had responsibility for all aspects of the society’s broad portfolio, including food.
Despite the challenges facing the high street Amazon can’t expect free rein to cherry-pick the best store locations. Competitors are alive to the ongoing opportunity in convenience and food-to-go and Birch’s former employer Sainsbury’s announced this week that although it plans to shutter a number of stores across its Argos and Sainsbury’s brands, it intends to open 110 new convenience stores, a net of 70 openings set against 40 planned closures.
Amazon, however, is sprinkled with the kind of gold dust that landlords are likely to want to associate with. The business is famously tolerant of its new ventures generating a loss and once it makes its move into Amazon-branded stores in the UK it seems certain to go big and be in it for the long haul.
As someone who has sought to challenge himself through his career choices, Birch’s journey with Amazon could well be his most rewarding yet.