While the big supermarkets still hold most of the power when it comes to New Zealanders’ grocery shopping, there are a few smaller grocers making their mark on the industry. Here’s how Huckleberry, with three stores across Auckland, is aiming to claim a slice of the grocery pie.
When you walk into a Huckleberry – stocked with copious nut butters, certified organic vegetables, locally-produced cheese and competitively priced fair trade bananas – it’s something quite unlike your usual supermarket experience. The stores, which focus on natural, organic and gluten free groceries, are breezy, spacious and for the most part lit with natural light. Jars of pickles or chutney or the snacks which populate the shelves are intriguing and often artisanally produced. There’s an emphasis on producers and where the kai has travelled from – especially in the fruit and vegetable section. Colour-coded stickers alert customers as to whether products are certified organic or not. It’s a far cry from the near-identical, fluorescent-lit shopping experience at any of the major supermarket chains.
In 2020, growing public discontent around the stranglehold these major supermarkets (which controlled around 90% of the market share – had on New Zealanders’ groceries) prompted the government to announce a study into the industry. The study gave the Commerce Commission licence to investigate the grocery sector landscape with the aim to consider whether competition was working effectively in the sector and, if it wasn’t, what could be done to improve it. A draft report released in July 2021 described how major supermarket retailers were enjoying “persistently high profits”, charging “high grocery prices when compared internationally” and that major retailers appeared to avoid robust competition with each other, while competitors keen to enter the market or wanting to expand faced significant challenges.
Huckleberry chief executive officer Darren Guo bought the company in 2022 alongside his investment partner Matthew Hughes. The pair started their own investment company, 2121 Group, in early-2021 after meeting while studying postgraduate certificates in business at The University of Auckland. At the time, Guo was one month into a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Auckland.
In the early stages of starting their investment company, Guo and Hughes pondered what their ideal investment would look like. “We had three core categories that we needed,” says Guo. “One was that it’ll be around in 100 years time, will outlive all of us, and it’ll make a positive impact, the second was that it will champion sustainability, the third one was that it had to align with something that was going on in the New Zealand economy at the time.” When Huckleberry came up for sale it ticked all the boxes.
The Huckleberry brand began in 1994, when the first store, then known as “Huckleberry Farms” opened in Greenlane. In the years since it opened, the number of sites has fluctuated, with three stores operating in Auckland currently – New Lynn, Grey Lynn and Glen Innes. Beyond a brand refresh in 2015, when the company made a shift to a more minimalist contemporary design and dropped the “Farms” from their name, the current owners of the chain say the core commitment to ethical sourcing, environmental responsibility and promoting healthy living behind Huckleberry remains the same as when the store first opened its doors almost thirty years ago.
Guo has since brought two other University of Auckland alumni into the business: Justin Xie as chief financial officer and Wen Goble as organic lead, which, as her Linkedin bio explains, “means I’m a [general manager] on ‘training wheels’”.
It was the University of Auckland’s MBA programme which brought them together – all three were in the same cohort. In fact, Goble recalls, “for our first group project, the three of us were in the same group. We didn’t pick our groups, we were just put together”. Now, you could say they’re on a kind of long-term group project.
Close government attention on a perceived lack of competition in the sector provided an opportune time to make a move into the sector, and they say the MBA gave them the strategic insight to be competitive in that particular market in a time of change.
After spending their first year at the reins of Huckleberry ensuring the financial health of the business and securing a landmark wholesale deal with Woolworths, prompted by the government’s push for the larger supermarket retailers to open up their wholesale channels, Guo explains that the team is now in a phase of thinking more broadly about what they want the future of Huckleberry to look like. Those ambitions have led to a crowdfunding capital raising on Equitise, aiming to raise between $500,000 to $3 million to be able to expand their online shopping service, enhance their in-store experience, advocate for better organic standards and to develop their own affordable brand of everyday organic products.
“We have quite a large customer database, with about 90,000 customers, and one of the highest customer retention rates where we have a repeat purchase rate of about 64%, so we thought what better way to raise capital than through our customer base and our community,” says Goble. In exchange, those who invest will not just be rewarded by potential future profit, but they’ll receive a 10% discount on groceries for life.
While the capital raise is still in the expressions of interest period, Guo says, “a lot of customers have expressed interest back to us – a testament to our hypothesis that for us to expand our business, we need the community behind us.”
Programme Director for the MBA at The University of Auckland Mike Lee describes Huckleberry’s trajectory to get to this point as a “success story”. Not just for how the team has applied the skills and confidence acquired throughout the MBA to jump at a relatively new business opportunity, but also the role the MBA has played in bringing the team together.
“People that start off as strangers when they first meet at the beginning of the degree end up becoming part of their extended business whānau because they spend a lot of intense time and activity together, working on assignments, being in the same classrooms, going to the same courses, reading the same thing,” Lee says. In the instance of Guo hiring Xie and Goble, “he knows they’re quality individuals, he knows their strengths, their weaknesses, he knows their background, he knows he can trust them.”
Rather than train people to be specialists, the MBA is designed to help students progress within their fields by teaching them the ins and outs of how an organisation or business is set up, how it operates, supply chains, how finance works, what aspects of accounting to pay attention to, legal aspects. “So someone that’s really technically good at engineering, or an architect, or a lawyer will, at some point, reach the ceiling and they’ll be asked to manage people and do other things to help the business function and they find that they don’t have the business skills to do that,” says Lee. The MBA essentially teaches people to go beyond that ceiling by unravelling the complexities of organisations and how to thrive in competitive environments – whether it’s for profit or not.
It attracts people who are keen to set up businesses, but the cohort is also far more varied in terms of which industry they’ve come from. Engineers, academics, architects, lawyers, doctors and public servants all regularly flow in and out of the course too. It means that what people take from the course is varied too. For some who come from finance backgrounds, their greatest takeaway might be the soft skills; for those who’ve spent their time managing people, their biggest takeaway may be a better understanding of accounting.
“We get them to think more broadly beyond just money, to a more balanced scorecard in terms of investing in your people, caring about the environment, and from the New Zealand perspective, understanding the role of the treaty, and co-governance,” says Lee. “The sorts of things that they might not otherwise be exposed to, if they just did business as usual.”
Between Guo, Goble and Xie there’s a broad range of takeaways from the MBA, but they’re united on the way the course has enhanced their ability to work with different people and bring together diverse perspectives and approaches in their everyday running of Huckleberry.
“Without the MBA, we would have been quite lost throughout this Huckleberry process – taking over a business and being custodians of such a legacy brand is no small feat,” says Guo. “There are a lot of moving parts from finance to making sure that operations are run well, so we don’t have a lot of wastage, so we stay true to our sustainability goals, to marketing.”
Perhaps even more importantly, it’s brought them together. “To be honest, I feel like without the MBA, none of us would have met, in fact I don’t even know if Darren would have bought Huckleberry if he hadn’t done an MBA,” says Xie. “The MBA itself has actually opened up a different door to a different world for us.”
From their initial dive into the supermarket sector, to navigating a wholesale deal with Woolworths, to initiating a crowd-funding capital raise, to drawing out plans for store expansions and own-brand product lines, to a recently launched fruit and vegetable box subscription service, Huckleberry is hoping to take grocery shoppers with them into a world of supermarkets where the aisles are populated by food that’s healthier for both us and the planet, and the grocery sector is populated with at least a little more healthy competition.