How do you market your business?

Some of the country’s top wholesalers invest millions in marketing every year, while others rely entirely on word-of-mouth and the strength of its staff. ELIT ROWLAND considers how wholesalers are getting their message across

Wholesalers vary in their approaches to marketing. Some – including East End Foods and Wing Yip – invest in consumer TV and radio advertising, while other wholesalers thrive on the face-to-face engagement offered by trade events and field sales reps.

So, what approach is right for your business? A good place to begin any marketing strategy is by looking at how your customers prefer to be communicated with.
A recent survey conducted by Him! looked at how retailers ranked their symbol group’s marketing: only 49% rated their wholesaler eight, nine or 10 out of 10 for communication.
So there’s clearly room for improvement but the approach will depend largely on your customer base.

From Him! research, we know that retailers in particular prefer face-to-face interaction in the cash & carry or with field sales reps. Some wholesalers are responding by investing heavily in strong field sales forces.

One wholesaler has increased sales by £10m in the past year as a result. Mark Windebank, managing director of Newry-based Savage & Whitten (S&W), says: “Our customer base is 100% retail and we rely entirely on our field sales reps – they’ve helped us to achieve sales of £57m this year, compared with £47m in 2012.”

The group relies on field sales reps: its team has grown from just six people, two years ago, to a team of 18 this year. But with field sales reps an expensive option, some wholesalers are turning to trade events, which can bring hundreds or even thousands of existing or potential customers together under one roof.

“Our customers range from retailers and caterers to delicatessens, butchers and ex-patriot shops overseas,” says Neil Heseltine, general manager of Special Offer Supplies (SOS). He attends between five and six international food-and-drink trade exhibitions a year.



  • UNDERSTAND YOUR CUSTOMER: Graeme McKenzie, head of offer development for 3663 says talking to customers before, during and after your marketing strategy is critical.
  • REINVENT YOURSELF: A website may not guarantee a return on investment, but for smaller businesses, it’s an effective way of changing how you are perceived, for the better.
  • CATERING FOR COOKS:Caterers like bite-sized amounts of information, with good quality images to showcase recipes and to inspire ideas and serving suggestions.
  • DONT’ BE A TWITTER ‘FOOL’:develop a corporate social media strategy to ensure that even ‘tweets’ adhere to rules and regulations. Social media responsibilities can also be outsourced to a third party.
  • UTILISE ALL MEDIUMS:Birchall Foodservice prints messages on the back of customer-invoices to shout about new products, promotions or events.
  • GET IN THE LIMELIGHT:Participating in high-profile local community events can help to raise the profile of your business.


“The investment we put into this is actually cheaper than spending £50,000 a year on putting an extra sales rep on the road – and you get a better return.”

But business doesn’t necessarily happen overnight – and wholesalers interested in using trade events to generate revenue will need to put the time in. “It can take up to a year of customers seeing you at various trade shows for them to become confident in your brand.”

First-time exhibitor Regal Wholesale took the plunge last month with its first-ever stand at a trade exhibition, which was well attended by retailers and wholesalers alike.
“We exhibited at the Today’s Group exhibition in Stoneleigh – it was a great way to meet new customers and put some faces to existing customers, and we even took a few orders,” says managing director Chris Hughes. “We’ll definitely be doing it again next year.”

Online – apps, ipads and websites

While spending quality time seeing customers face-to-face has shown to be an effective way of marketing, having a digital presence on the web is considered by many a fundamental way to drive a business forward.

Regal, which supplies and manufactures paper products and toilet rolls, launched its first website 10 years ago, which helped the business to double its turnover from £3m to £6m, partly by changing how the group was perceived.

“Despite starting out as quite a small business, the website gave us a window to compete with larger retailers – it made us look much bigger than we really were,” explains Hughes.
“However, if anyone actually came to the depot, we were more like Steptoe and Son.”
Today, Regal has a turnover of £16m and a 45,000sq ft depot, with online sales accounting for 25% of the business.

The development of mobile technology has meant that many wholesalers can market their businesses on the move.

“We showcase our website to customers using iPads,” says S&W’s Windebank. “They’re always impressed with how easy it is to use. We are in the process of developing an app that will soon make it even easier.”

At least 40% of S&W’s sales are completed online. “This is impressive when you consider that two years ago, we didn’t even have this facility.”

But websites don’t work for everyone and one Isle of Man-based wholesaler is managing to grow its business without a website at all.

“Our main ways of marketing are emails, promotional materials and our Facebook page,” says Chris Kewley, commercial director of Agrimark Cash & Carry. The wholesaler has a split
customer base: 50% retailers, 50% foodservice.

“We have almost 700 Facebook followers and get lots of regular product comments and questions.”

Social media

While Agri­mark found success with Facebook, devising a ‘social media strategy’ that can be shown to generate revenue has presented one of biggest challenges for many wholesalers today, even those that are active online.

Today’s Group recently offered its members a ‘guide to social media’ in response to requests for guidance from members and suppliers during its recent conference in Berlin.

But they’re not the only ones being asked for support. Country Range Group member Birchall Foodservice also finds the realms of social media a challenge and points out the difficulty of keeping up with changing trends.

“We’ve been told that Facebook is already ‘out’– what’s next?” asks Louise Birchall, sales director of the group. “We agree that you need to try new things, but the danger with Twitter is that you can end up looking foolish. The Burnley-based delivered wholesaler has a turnover of £17m, and a customer base that covers nursing and care homes, education, hotels, and restaurants. It relies entirely on drivers and telesales to market its business.

“We make sure that our drivers and telesales staff are well-trained and have up-to-date information on all our products – even our drivers know the price of a kettle!” says Birchall.
The wholesaler uses every opportunity to shout about new products. “We even put messages on the back of our invoices. Not a lot of our customers know that we also sell catering equipment, so it’s a useful way to highlight anything we’re trying to push.”

While some wholesalers treat social media with caution, others have taken the plunge. Regal’s Hughes says that social media is proving to be a useful way to market his business.
“We put our corporate video on YouTube and customers have told us that they learnt more about our business in two minutes then they learnt in 20 years.”

Hughes’ advice to wholesalers is to be open-minded and explore different ­opportunities.
“Twenty years ago, I remember people saying to me, ‘What do you want a mobile phone for?’ You can’t just assume that your customers don’t want information on email or social media – you need to be doing it, otherwise you’ll be left behind.”

If you’re not comfortable creating a social networking profile for your entire business, why not try for individual products? Some wholesalers are already considering setting up Facebook pages for individual food items.

“Our Crucial 500ml sauce has been getting a lot of positive feedback,” says SOS’s Heseltine. “We get at least two emails a week from customers telling us about innovative ways they are using it. We think that getting the brand on Facebook will help us attract other potential ­customers.”

The only downside, he adds, “is that our competitors will be able to see our customers – but hopefully it will be worth the risk”.

Community events

While field sales reps, trade shows, digital and social media, and promotional materials all play a role in effective marketing, there’s no doubt that one of the best ways to market your business is to throw yourself into the limelight.

One exceptional wholesaler has managed to raise the profile of his business by engaging in high-profile community activities.

East End Foods’ Jason Wouhra was recently appointed chairman of the Institute of Directors in the West Midlands and is confident that the role will be a positive move for the wholesale business.
“Being in the public eye has got to be a good thing, especially if your brand is mentioned,” says Wouhra. But the move could also benefit the sector as a whole. “No one from our channel has ever been represented in the institute before – it gives us a great opportunity to promote the interests of the channel and we hope other wholesalers will follow our ­example.”


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