Wholesalers and suppliers attended the conference in Barcelona at the end of September

Wholesalers and leading suppliers gathered in Barcelona, Spain, at the end of September for the Today’s Group’s annual conference, with this incarnation marking the buying group’s 30th year.

Today’s Group chairman Simon Hannah kicked off proceedings by introducing a video showcasing the history, innovation and passion that drives the buying group’s members.

Delegates learned about Isle of Man wholesaler Robinson’s Fresh Foods, founded in 1886, which has diversified its product offering into cuisines such as Thai, Filipino and Indian. Meanwhile, Holland Bazaar has moved to become the UK’s first cash & carry operating 24 hours a day. It doesn’t have tills – instead, its customers liaise with and pay sales staff equipped with handheld terminals.

George McGregor, managing director of public affairs consultancy Interel, set the scene with the opening presentation, talking wholesalers through the recent national and global political shifts and policy moves that have affected their market.

He left delegates with the warning that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister Michael Gove has indicated that he wouldn’t be averse to a deposit return scheme being operated in England and Wales, following news that Scotland is pressing ahead with its own scheme. McGregor cautioned: “This could be incredibly burdensome if introduced in the wrong way.”

Next to present was Estrella Damm’s export manager Pablo Gil Oelmann, who provided stats about the Barcelona-based brewing giant’s growth in the UK beer market. Most notably, Damm is reportedly the number-one cash-generating beer per tap in London.

The first panel session of the conference comprised seven wholesalers and suppliers. Debate focused on a number of key areas, including the number of new products released to wholesalers, at a time when a number of businesses in the channel are rationalising their ranges.

Karen Jones, a director at speciality foods supplier RH Amar, said: “It’s so important to launch the right new products. One of the biggest challenges we have, though, is how to get the products out there into distribution.”

But Andrew Wild, director at alcohol wholesaler Wilds of Oldham, noted that things are different in the on-trade: “The movement of new products behind the bar is much slower,” he said. “Pubs and bars are by and large not in a position to chop and change every week. The relationship between your business development manager and customer is essential. They have to work with each customer to get to know their specific needs.”

Mark MacGregor, director of corporate affairs at Philip Morris International (PMI), spoke on the second day of the conference about the tobacco firm’s ambitious – and at one time inconceivable – pledge to help eliminate cigarette smoking in the UK by 2050.

PMI’s weapon in this mission is its ‘heat not burn’ IQOS kit. However, MacGregor noted that there are currently 8m smokers in the UK, but only 2.8m vapers: “People are confused about how safe vaping is, for one, and believe it is as dangerous or more dangerous than smoking cigarettes,” he suggested.

The second panel session of the conference followed a presentation by research body Him’s client manager Holly Franklin. Franklin presented evidence that signage in-depot is not delivering as much benefit to cash & carry operators as it could be.

Picking up the theme, Today’s Group trading director John Baines said: “For years, this sector has been behind the multiples. It has just been assumed if a banner goes up, people will see it, but it’s clear this needs looking at.”

The panel heard from Rahul Kotecha, group trading controller at wholesale giant Dhamecha. The business is on the cusp of opening its first depot in Birmingham, and Kotecha spoke about the work Dhamecha is doing to ensure depot staff are briefed about the new site’s layout, and to make sure relevant signage is used to avoid lost sales across all its depots.

Kotecha also urged suppliers to rethink their packaging. He said: “We take suppliers to the soft drinks aisle and show them the packaging. It’s clear, shrink-wrapped and you can perfectly see what the products are. In other categories, products can come in brown boxes and aren’t easy to identify.”

Ricky Johal, a director at wholesaler Crown Cash & Carry, told delegates that he believes another tool which could be used in-depot to assist customers is making posters and packaging bi-lingual or multi-lingual: “A lot of retailers come in and English is their second language,” he said. “They will say things like, ‘I want the bottle with the bird on it,’ by which they mean Famous Grouse. Multi-lingual branding on the box can help overcome that.”

The panel debate turned to making the online sales operation as profitable as possible. It was established, though, that a well-staffed and able telesales team remains absolutely critical for many wholesalers. Jim Cummiskey, managing director at Scottish foodservice wholesaler Fáilte Foods, said: “We’ve tried to bring the digital platform to life. We hope that it will ease some pressure on telesales. But I know we aren’t alone in experiencing telesales growth – other members, like Holdsworth Foods, Robinsons and John Mower & Co, are also seeing this trend.”

Cummiskey added that ensuring your drivers “know the product as well as delivering it” is essential to keeping your business ahead of the competition.

Today’s Baines also discussed the importance of depot staff being as knowledgeable as possible, given that they are the point of contact for your customers when they are in your depot.

He went on to highlight the importance of working on the digital platform: “The website always has to be welcoming. But imagine introducing the pop-up B2C website live chats on a B2B platform? In foodservice or the on-trade, being able to ask a wholesale buyer about gin trends or allergens through such a service could be a gamechanger.”

The final day saw Rob Eastwood, the managing director of on-trade distributor Small Beer, discuss the journey the firm had been on in his nine years at the helm. Eastwood urged delegates to assess what their point of difference was, to look after their ‘work family’, and to be mindful of the fact that knowledge and passion combined can be “really powerful”.

Following Eastwood were three directors from fellow on-trade wholesaler HT & Co (Drinks), who discussed the business’ diversification into online drinks-buying portal Drink Supermarket, among other ventures.

Finally, the conference’s keynote speaker, ex-newsreader Trevor McDonald, talked about interviewing the likes of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, neatly rounding off an informative, productive and congenial few days.


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