The Direct approach

P&H inherited a van sales arm and is training its staff to deal with new categories and opportunities, writes TAN PARSONS 

‘Posh’ pubs sell Peroni, and posh sandwich bars offer their customers brie as a filling. An outlet that sells neither brie nor Peroni is not posh.

This is how Palmer & Harvey’s new van sales arm P&H Direct works out what type of products will sell best in different venues. It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, but it is important to use all the sales data you have when you’re making a mark on the super-competitive foodservice industry.

The business was born – more or less – when Palmer & Harvey acquired the Walkers Van Sales business, inheriting 23,000 customers and forming the UK’s largest field sales force.

The market is a broad one and caters for businesses ranging from Michelin-starred restaurants to burger vans in motorway lay-bys. Unlike established operators, such as Brakes and 3663, P&H Direct does not yet provide a full range of frozen meals. But its product offering is growing.

Inheriting the ‘DNA’ of the Walkers Van Sales business, it focuses primarily on crisps, snacks and nuts. But soft drinks could prove to be the key to success on the largest scales, says managing director Huw Davies.

“Soft drinks are growing massively for us,” he says. “The drink opportunity is really exciting. One of our biggest challenges is to make sure we understand the impact of the sunshine on drinks because how big could the opportunity be? I’m not sure I know. When the sun shines, drinks take off hugely.”

As a new player in the foodservice market, one thing Davies knows he needs to get right – and fast – is to ensure all his van sales representatives are as knowledgeable about the new categories as they are about crisps, snacks and nuts. The van sales reps are the face of the company and the expertise they offer customers is at the core of the business.

He says: “The Walkers vans had a very large, non-retail core of customers – lots of pubs, lots of sandwich bars already. But it’s also about increasing the number of outlets, making sure that all the guys are clear on the new categories they’ve got sell. We want to make sure that every one of our guys is a category expert. Every one of them would have been an expert on crisps but we’ve broadened.”

To help achieve this there is a training programme and an induction for all new starters which is followed by ongoing training. The van sales reps have regular field visits with their manager, during which they are taken through how to use the company’s iVan app on the iPad, as well as boosting their knowledge of P&H Direct’s product range.

What’s attractive to potential and existing customers is not only the time and resources saved on going to buy stock from a cash & carry – and also the advice the sales reps can offer.

“We are really offering peace of mind for the outlet-owner: they know that our reps are going to help them to unlock sales and drive growth, which is in everybody’s interest,” says Davies.

The other thing is instant availability – a key ingredient of the business. The rep turns up and seconds later the product is in the store and starting to sell – what Davies calls “the power of vans”.

The way P&H Direct will differentiate itself from players like Brakes and 3663 is simple, he says.

“We offer a competitive set of pricing but it’s about regular reliable service. The biggest saving we can offer these guys is time. There is no requirement to pre-order. It’s a van sales service offering national coverage. We offer service direct to the customer at least once a fortnight without their having to do telephone or web ordering.”

Just how big a part the weather plays in this business has become apparent with some of P&H Direct’s recent new business wins, which include golf clubs.

“They’ve had quite a tough time with the weather and now, as it’s improved, people are back playing again. We’re offering a range of products you need in a golf club, and equally sandwich bars delivering sandwich rounds, so more and more you’ll see a van driving into an industrial estate.

“The sandwich bar owner is running the business. He wants somebody to take off him the headache of where’s he having to get his stock from. We turn up and match his needs and that’s turning out to be a real win for us.”

To see what we learnt when we went ‘on the road’ with P&H Direct’s Craig Pennington, check out pages 22-23 of your August issue of Better Wholesaling 


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