How you can excel as a specialist wholesaler

The wholesale market as we know it is evolving.

With the likes of Booker and Bestway increasing in stature, it is possible that SMEs in the channel will struggle to compete in the one-stop-shop arena.

So, cometh the hour, cometh the specialist wholesaler?

As wholesale expert and managing director of consultancy Store Excel, David Gilroy, notes: “If you try to be a one-stop-shop, you put yourself in the mix with the big boys. The name of the game is to be very good at something and kill the category. Niche wholesalers do well. It is almost counter-intuitive, but you can be successful with it.”

But how can you excel as a specialist wholesaler in an age of shrinking margins and rising overheads, when your customers have less time and fewer staff to visit cash & carries or use multiple online ordering systems? Experts in this field share their tips on what makes a good specialist wholesaler.

Walk before you run

Quite simply, you have to learn to walk before you can run. “You need to start with your audience and work backwards – that is how to be successful at being a specialist wholesaler,” Store Excel’s Gilroy says.

Martin Sheridan, MD of Spanish foods wholesaler Mevalco, echoes that sentiment: “You have to understand your customer requirements and innovate around that – you always need to look from the outside in rather than the other way round,” he notes.

Tex-Mex wholesaler Funnybones Foodservice is one business that seeks to look at matters from its customers’ perspectives, to ensure that its niche as a specialist wholesaler is finely tuned.

Tom Styman-Heighton, the firm’s development chef, says: “Finding a wholesaler you can trust to provide the quality and style of product that you want to serve can help take some of the strain away from food ordering and procuring. This is particularly true if you like to feature cuisine from a certain region of the world.”

With time constraints in mind, aligned with trends that change all the time, a good specialist wholesaler makes full use of an online ordering system.

As Paul Hargreaves, chief executive officer at specialist wholesaler Cotswold Fayre, says: “More customers ordering online means  you can be more responsive with your range than with a catalogue. Keeping up with that is vitally important to succeeding.”

Tailored tallies up

To be on the ball as a specialist wholesaler, you have to make the service you offer to your customers seem tailored: “Come hell or high water, you need to achieve this,” advises Mevalco’s Sheridan, adding that this needs to be done in conjunction with providing products that customers cannot get anywhere else.

Matthew Moare, operations coordinator at wholesaler The Kentish Match Company, explains how his company outdoes the likes of Booker at this.

“For us, just offering Skittles Original or the regular Mars bar is not where we make our money. It is about providing all the variants that come with those brands,” he says. “Customers will regularly come to us and say, ‘Our wholesaler has delisted product X – can you get it for us?’ That is where we come into our own.”

But how do you achieve the tailored approach that Sheridan mentions?

Cotswold Fayre’s Hargreaves says you have to use all the resources and stakeholders at your disposal. “We are close to suppliers and we get feedback from them. Out on the road, you need a well-trained and knowledgeable sales team asking customers the right questions, further strengthening your specialist wholesaler status,” he says.

A good example of how to make each customer feel valued comes from Dorset-based wholesaler Country Fare, which runs a ‘chef’s day out’ scheme. The day out involves linking local producers to those who use their ingredients, for the benefit of everyone in the supply chain.

“Being part of the community is where we excel as a specialist wholesaler,” says marketing manager Tim Whyatt. “Stretching out into other aspects beyond just simply being a foodservice supplier is extremely important.”

Funnybones’ Styman-Heighton adds: “We like to build a friendly working relationship with our customers so that we can keep them up to date with any new products we are launching. Often, these are new to the market and sometimes they are even new to the country. This helps operators to stay on top of the trends in casual dining and to offer customers the latest fashionable food product or dish.”

At Mevalco, meanwhile, the sales personnel are all chefs in their own right. “Chefs talking to chefs makes for very powerful relationships,” notes Sheridan.

Emphasising the need for a good specialist wholesaler to continually talk to its customers, Sheridan illustrates this point with the following example: “If the customer carries, say, a particular Spanish vegetable on their menu, which we find out by talking to them has been very popular, we would respond to that by recommending a viable alternative when the season comes to an end on that product,” he says.

The extra mile

Keen readers of Better Wholesaling’s retailer profiles will note that one regular grievance about the service the bigger players in the wholesale market provide is that – either fairly or unfairly – they do not always go the extra mile. This is an area, therefore, in which the specialist wholesaler can thrive.

A key way to achieving this is by hiring the right staff, according to Country Fare’s Whyatt, who says: “It is essential that you have a passion for food if you want to work here – that is how we ensure we do our best by our customers. This is not just a job – it is a passion. Driving that outwards is how you become a supplier and partner of choice.”

Whyatt also points to the importance of being adaptable. “Your mindset needs to be: ‘There is always a solution to be found,’” he adds. “Our company name might be Country Fare, but as a business, we operate under the banner of ‘fresh thinking’.”

During the recent snow, Country Fare used its social media channels hourly to keep its customers in the loop about the status of scheduled deliveries. On a similar technology note and feeding into a wider trend in the wholesale market, data has proven to be a powerful aid in understanding the customer for Mevalco, according to Sheridan.

Going the extra mile on product innovation is also vitally important, says Jonathan Summerley, purchasing director at confectionery wholesale giant Hancocks. “Customers are loyal as they view Hancocks as a confectionery specialist that is continually building on its strong and broad product range while frequently developing innovative products that set the company apart from ‘one-stop’ shops,” he notes.

Time to thrive

So, is the time right for specialist wholesalers to thrive?

For Store Excel’s Gilroy, this is a trend that extends far beyond FMCG wholesale: “Look at the high-street, which is in the midst of a tough time,” he says. “If you have a concept that is bringing something new and exciting to the party, you can thrive. But if you have the same as everyone else and do things averagely, you are never going to thrive.”

Mevalco’s Sheridan adds: “There will always be a need and demand for the large wholesalers who trade on price and deliver national scale for multiple contracts – clearly, the market is being driven by ‘buying and logistical’ efficiency at the moment, as was seen with Tesco’s acquisition of Booker. SME specialist wholesalers cannot compete on price for tins of baked beans and we do not try. But smaller SMEs are by their very nature more agile and more customer-centric, and we can provide the innovation and unique products that make us lead, not follow.”

For further signs of success among specialist wholesalers, Gilroy points to alcohol wholesalers, such as Imperial Cash & Carry and HT & Co. Drinks, that are winning business in this category from the giant players by demonstrating their specialist credentials.

Meanwhile, for Funnybones’ Styman-Heighton, current consumer trends mean the time is right for specialist wholesalers to shine. “Today’s well-travelled consumers demand authentic flavours, not just a British approximation of popular dishes,” he says. “This is why specialist wholesalers – with their expert knowledge of the authentic flavours and ingredients demanded by any particular cuisine and their links with trusted suppliers in the relevant regions – have the edge when it comes to world foods.

“With consumers demanding authenticity in their food, operators will increasingly turn to knowledgeable specialist wholesalers they can rely on to provide foods true to a region.”

Ben McKechnie, MD at innovative snacks wholesaler Epicurium Wholesale, concludes: “If we can keep ourselves at the forefront of innovation and up-and-coming trends, and on top of what consumer groups want, we can steal a march on the big boys.” l


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