Today’s Group MD shares past, present and future challenges

John Schofield, acting managing director of the Today’s Group, talks to Helena Drakakis about the company’s plans ahead of the Today’s Group conference in Lisbon, which runs from September 23-27.

BW: How has The Today’s Group helped wholesalers grow sales in the past 12 months?

JS: We cover a broad sector in the industry: grocery, licensed, on-trade, foodservice, health and beauty, and the depth of knowledge here, in particular recently in on-trade, has meant that the last 18 months have continued to be hugely successful for the Group. We have a very stable team, with a number of our staff having served a significant number of years in the organisation, which provides experience and expertise to our members. My team works hard to negotiate the very best deals on behalf of our members, and we have a strong promotional platform across all categories. Our annual programme of trade days also drive volume, sales and profit in member depots. We have also invested heavily in state-of-the-art technology – for example, linking our members online into their performance with suppliers on a monthly basis.

What is the greatest challenge you feel the industry currently faces?

There continues to be strong competition from the multiples, and we are working with our supplier partners and members to deliver promotional activity and competitive pricing to drive sales in our member’s depots, and for their independent convenience retailer customers. Legislation continues to create challenges for our members, and as a result, we shall be supporting them at our conference with a number of panel sessions covering topics such as the National Living Wage, pension auto-enrolment, continued price deflation, and tobacco legislation. The Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) is doing a great job supporting the channel, especially around alcohol duty fraud. The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) is working hard too, and we have regular meetings with both. While there will always be challenges, the wholesale channel will always find a way through, and the Today’s Group is here to help and support its members as much as we can.

What trends and opportunities are emerging in wholesale that Today’s Group members can take advantage of?

There are two main areas that we have identified going forward: the heavy investment in technology will be our key focus for the next 12 months, as well as developments in the range of products being stocked, including a particular emphasis on the fresh and chilled categories. The rolling out of digital coupons and Beacon technology will pay dividends for our members and their retailers, and we’re encouraging members to take advantage of the exclusive deals that come with that. We have made a major investment in the area of technology.

What challenges has the group had to overcome in the past year?

Our former managing director Bill Laird was instrumental in moving the company from Nisa-Today to the formation of the Today’s Group in 2012, and his achievement speaks for itself. I can’t put it into words. I have been in the role for seven months following his untimely passing, and the fact that Bill built an exceptional team is testament to him, and has made my role in driving the business a whole lot easier. My team has worked very hard over the past 18 months, to maintain the day to day running of the business understanding the impact that Bill’s situation could have had on the business. It has been a difficult time for us all; however, we’ve pulled together and come through it successfully. In terms of business, the ongoing impact of price marked packs has proved challenging, and securing a reasonable margin for members through the line will also be a key issue at our conference.

What’s the Today’s Group’s greatest achievement over the past year?

We’ve got 148 members. We’re the largest buying group of our kind. Our buying power is approaching £6bn, and we’ve attracted new members all the time; for example, Hancocks Cash & Carry. This was a significant achievement as Hancocks has been independent for over 50 years. Our partnership with app provider bigDL has also proved successful, but as with any technical shift, there has been some resistance to change. That said, the majority of our members have embraced the technology, and understand the benefits that it will bring to their business. When I was young, an iPad didn’t exist. I even remember the first mobile phone I had in my car. It was massive! But technology is here to stay and is the future, and it is our role to demonstrate the benefits to our members. It may take some time, however, continuing to develop our digital capabilities will remain a key strategic objective for the Group.

What advice would you give wholesalers looking to trade for growth?

We have a number of supplier partners with whom we have long-term business plans, and this is really going to help our members in the future. We work with suppliers via our Supplier Council, which we set up two years ago following feedback from our 2014 conference. We use this forum to explore with suppliers how we can develop our joint business relationship for the benefit of our members. It’s about discussing our strategic objectives and how we can better work together for the benefit of our members. Insights and learnings are fed back to our members.

What would you like to see happening in wholesale in the next 12 months?

Suppliers need to really understand that there has to be a profitable share of the margin in order to succeed in the wholesale and independent convenience channel. It’s an incredibly competitive environment, and a need for a profitable shared margin is a key requirement in the supplier-wholesaler relationship.

Are you planning any activity that wholesalers should be aware of?

We shall continue to work hard to negotiate ongoing promotional activity which wholesalers are constantly made aware of. Work will continue in developing the digital aspects of the business throughout 2016 and into next year. And once we have returned from conference at the end of September, work will begin in earnest in developing and creating another outstanding trade show in March 2017.


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