Martyn Fisher meets inspiring wholesaler Pricecheck, which, among other things, has made its niche exporting beauty items to the other side of the world
Based in Yorkshire, big in Papua New Guinea – FMCG wholesale is now a global game, even for those based in the UK, and Pricecheck encapsulates this.
The beauty goods giant – which has recently added food, drink and alcohol to its portfolio – exports its wares to around 75 countries from its main depot and two satellite sites in Sheffield.
Among other far-flung destinations, it has found a strong demand for its goods from the Oceanian islands, some 8,700 miles away.
The parents of current directors Debbie Harrison and Mark Lythe founded Pricecheck as a retail business in 1978.
One store soon became four, as the siblings’ father, Doug, preferred to buy in larger quantities, having previously worked as a sales director for a manufacturer.
By 1985, the business was solely focused on wholesale and one year later, Lythe joined Pricecheck, followed two years later by Harrison.
After working in various departments, the brother-and-sister team took full control of the business in 2007.
At that stage, Pricecheck’s turnover was £17m, with £2m of that figure accounted for by export goods. Today, turnover is at £73m, of which exports account for £33m.
“We have a foot in most camps here in the UK, and we try to copy that model elsewhere in the world, even if it is not always completely compatible,” says Harrison.
The business is hoping to push turnover to £7m shy of £100m this year. Fundamental to this stratospheric growth – alongside “lots and lots of hard work” – has been the move to a new, larger site in February 2016.
Lythe says: “That move allowed us the extra space to grow the company, particularly the extra office space we needed. We were growing rapidly anyway, but since the move, it has gone to a new level.
“The products we stock are ever-changing. Being under one roof gives us complete control of what is going in and out. We could not have grown without moving here, and we have adjusted several times since being here, as the demands on the business have been huge.
“But that is one of our main skills – we are very fluid and adaptable. When things change, we do, too. It is far easier to be adaptable as a wholesaler than as a brand owner.”
Joining the Today’s Group buying group in 2015 and making a foray into grocery allowed the business to become a one-stop shop. Since then, there has been a focus on ‘going deeper’ into categories the business specialises in, such as cosmetics.
Forging closer sourcing relationships with brands in this field has been an important driver of Pricecheck’s growth, too.
“We are very big in the discount retail sector,” Lythe says. “But we are increasingly being used as a distribution partner for world-leading brands, and our focus has been on creating more strategic partnerships with them.
At home and abroad, we can service a multitude of different routes to market, be it discounters, online or pharmacy
“So, although we are loyal to our discount base and we are known for our competitive pricing, we are now more service-driven, too.”
Pricecheck’s ability to distinguish itself from the competition has been crucial in obtaining these deals. Harrison says: “We have scale, geographic reach and multi-channel distribution. So, at home and abroad, we can service a multitude of different routes to market, be it discounters, online or pharmacy. We can fill the gaps in the brand owners’ networks. Most businesses are reducing their sales teams to cut costs, but we are growing ours.
“Our minimum order to customers is still very low. We are geared up to look after the smaller independents, but we are also a specialist in the bigger players in the market. But we can do the spread for both customers and suppliers. With regards to the latter, we can manage their residuals, be their distribution partner, or anything in the middle, using our scale.”
Investments in IT have also helped grow the business. Pricecheck has a team of seven full-time staff in its IT department, and is continually developing bespoke systems for both selling and buying. The business also works to share data with suppliers.
In addition to its large IT department, the business has a team working on new products, and another team dedicated to working on new markets.
In total, the business serves about 2,000 customers, and now employs about 160 staff – a figure which has doubled in the past two years. A large number of the team have been there for longer than that, though.
“We have a really good system of bringing in people and training them up, and our sales team are incredible,” says Harrison. “They are predominantly people who have been with us since graduation and we have trained them to manage the products in the way we want them to.”
However, she notes: “When we have been growing so quickly and recruiting so quickly, the challenge is getting staff up to speed. It can take a year or two to understand what we are really about. And with our growth, that can be the limiting factor at the moment.”
Pricecheck wants to be a £200m business by 2025. A few years ago, it set the target of reaching £100m by 2020.
“At the time, some of the team thought there was no way we could do that,” says Lythe. “But we will now beat it earlier. This 2025 target sounds steep, yet we have more plans in place than we can implement right now. As everyone matures into their roles, more of those ideas can be implemented. We are lucky we are very fluid, so when there are changes in the market, we are in a position to change direction, where necessary.”
Even Brexit is not seen as an obstacle for this importer/exporter, although Lythe admits that he and Harrison “would like the process to be over and done with, so we can adapt and proceed”.
With a new website going live later this year, there is a lot happening at Pricecheck. But following in their parents’ footsteps, Lythe and Harrison would not have it any other way.
60 Seconds With Debbie Harrison
What is the best piece of business advice you can offer?
Work hard, be brave and be adaptable. The times we have grown the most have been the times when it has been ‘worst’ – such as in a recession or when Sheffield was hit by floods in 2007. We had horrendous times, but came out bigger, better and stronger.
What is your philosophy in regards to work?
You have got to enjoy it. One of our problems is that we do enjoy it – which can sometimes make it tricky to get the work/life balance right. But it should be fun – it is only business. And if you enjoy it, that spreads through to the team.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
Our parents worked well as a team. Mark and I learned a lot from them and our working styles complement each other, too.
What do you get up to in your spare time?
We both love to spend time with our families and to travel. The rest of my spare time I use to look after my horse.