Rob Mannion of RNF offers wholesalers five ways they can protect their operations
The wholesale sector has been heavily affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. While the summer offered some relief – not least for foodservice wholesalers benefiting from increased demand driven by the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme – rising infection rates and furloughing winding down suggest the industry is moving into yet more uncertain times.
Frustratingly for foodservice wholesalers, the introduction of a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants has effectively capped demand. However, retail wholesalers are benefiting from spikes in demand as post-10pm purchases of drinks and snacks increase, which is something we’ve noticed at RNF.
So, in a shifting landscape, what lessons can wholesalers learn from the first wave to give their businesses the best chance of survival into 2021?
- Keep things flexible
When I started writing this article, government guidance was to get back to the office, children were returning to school and people were due to go back to live sporting events on a trial basis.
Just a few weeks later, the guidance has reverted to ‘work from home’, several new local lockdowns – each with different restrictions – have been put in place across the country, the ‘rule of six’ is now in force in England, along with 10pm pub and restaurant closing times. All of which illustrates how quickly things are changing and how flexible wholesalers need to be over the next six months.
Constant change has real-life implications for a range of issues, from how and when depots open, to staffing and customer interest in product promotions. The key is to keep things flexible and be ready to respond to shifting opportunities and threats.
- Get ready for digital
Digital ordering has long been one of the biggest growth channels in wholesale, and the trend only accelerated during lockdown earlier this year as many wholesalers introduced digital ordering to allow customers to order remotely (reducing the risk of in-depot transmission) and even pivoted their businesses to support B2C customers through their apps.
RNF ‘s b2b.store is designed to make it quick, easy and cost-free for wholesalers to set up digital ordering, and we are now making our premium onboarding service free for foodservice wholesalers until the end of November, providing additional support to help wholesalers get product and data files ready for a quick and easy move online.
- Focus on customer experience
Wholesalers have invested significant time and money adapting their depots to make sure they are Covid-secure. However, these modifications have knock-on effects for the quality of customer experience. For example, reducing stock levels to encourage social distancing, one-way systems and restrictions on touching produce before customers buy all hinder the browsing experience and make it more difficult for customers to evaluate offers or go back for forgotten items.
Complementing the in-depot experience with online ordering is one way to improve the situation, allowing customers to browse in comfort, amend their orders and arrange deliveries or click & collect services at a time and place to suit them.
- Manage your teams
While some support for jobs is set to continue through the support scheme, managing depots through the winter months – when staff are off sick, need to self-isolate or look after children – will continue to pose challenges.
Again, digital technologies can mitigate the impact, allowing customers to manage their orders remotely should telesales staff be unavailable or freeing up those staff for other tasks.
- Tailor promotions
One of the joys of digital is that it allows wholesalers to be highly targeted and responsive in their promotions, driving sales and increasing basket sizes.
Many in-depot promotions are built around key calendar events e.g. Halloween and Christmas, but without knowing if trick or treating will be allowed, or whether families and friends can socialise at Christmas, it’s difficult to gauge demand and how much to invest.
In-app and online promotions require less up-front investment in marketing materials and shorter lead times than depot-led campaigns, allowing wholesalers to be more responsive. Promotions can also be tailored to local circumstances such as digital-only promotions for depots located in local lockdown areas or responding to greater demand in areas where socialising is permitted.
At the start of the pandemic, ‘we are all in the same boat’ was a common refrain but, six months on, it is clear that while we may all be sailing in the same seas, our individual challenges are all quite different. Responding to all these issues is a real challenge in the physical world but, by integrating digital channels into wholesale operations, there is potential for far greater flexibility and personalisation. Where once digital capability was a ‘nice to have’, today it’s increasingly a ‘must have’.
Rob Mannion is founder of RNF’s b2b.store