2020 proved a whirlwind year for wholesalers with the pandemic causing much-publicised challenges for businesses on multiple fronts.

Highly unpredictable and often muted customer demand, business interruptions, supply chain fragmentation, personnel challenges and cashflow constraints all conspired to make day-to-day operations more complex than ever.

Technology played a major role in enabling wholesale businesses to continue trading and remain connected with customers and suppliers throughout 2020.

“As the crisis has evolved, we have seen an increasing willingness among operators to give more consideration as to whether their sales operations are sufficiently tech-enabled to meet the demands of what is effectively an entirely new trading environment,” comments Joe Cox, business development manager at sales enablement software provider, sales-i. “With uncertain trading conditions set to persist well into this year, we fully expect increased tech adoption to continue as companies look to further streamline their operations, increase productivity and make better sense of their customer buying data for hopefully brighter economic times ahead.”

When it comes to customer relationship management, historically, wholesalers have always carried large amounts of data relating to their customer relationships, but all too often this has not been collated or recorded meaningfully, let alone interpreted to inform better sales strategy.

Yet with operators increasingly mindful of the value of ringfencing existing customer accounts and the ability to identify precious cross and upselling opportunities, more wholesalers are reconsidering this position. Broadly, there can be some reluctance in the sector to engage with new technologies on account of jargon overload, particularly among smaller players with limited time and resources to get to grips with what can often seem like impenetrable concepts.

While wholesalers could be forgiven for questioning how AI and machine learning could really be relevant to their day-to-day operations for example, both are set to become increasingly embedded in a range of tech applications that can actively make wholesalers’ lives easier.

This is especially the case with sales enablement software, where AI has the potential to be embedded into solutions as a matter of course to deliver insights to users automatically rather than requiring manual searching.

“On this note, sales-i has a number of exciting product developments and more strategic partnerships in the offing for the year ahead with a range of technology providers that will bring added functionality to the platform, enabling wholesale customers to draw even richer insights into their customer relationships and ultimately, sell better,” adds Cox.

News that the UK would be re-entering national lockdown was obviously the last thing the industry wanted to hear in the first week of the new year. That said, there remains much resilience across the sector and with efforts ongoing to roll out the vaccine, wholesalers will be very much in consolidation mode hoping for brighter times ahead.

Moving forward, flexibility, collaboration and staying close to customers will be key for wholesalers looking to maximise sales.

“While it may sadly be some months until the hospitality sector is free to open up fully once more, the interim weeks present a strong opportunity for operators to consider their short, medium and longer-term priorities and ask some tough questions about their existing sales tools and practices to ensure they are fit to deliver,” says Cox. “For example, does your sales team have the right tools and software to do the job? Are there elements of your sales process that perpetuate wider operational challenges? Is your CRM strategy working? Can you realistically diversify to service new markets and customers?”

Of course, there won’t always be easy answers to these questions and businesses will need to consider how potential sales strategy changes might impact their overall operations.

It will be a bumpy road ahead but by tackling the big challenges now, wholesale businesses can get their sales strategy on the right footing for the new era ahead.

Darren Nickels, Retail Technology Operations Director at Henderson Technology, comments: “2020 was an all-round year of success stories for Henderson Technology and the growth of EDGEPoS.”

Unitas Wholesale announced EDGEPoS as an approved EPOS supplier and the partnership enables Henderson Technology to supply EDGEPoS, the award winning global EPOS software system, to retail stores supplied by wholesalers within Unitas Wholesale.

The Unitas partnership announcement tied in with EDGEPoS’ tenth birthday and the announcement of 600 EDGEPoS installs globally in March 2020.

The EDGEPoS system is the approved EPOS supplier to fuel retailers for JW Filshill retailers, the Glasgow based wholesaler.

EDGEPoS was installed into a number of JW Filshill fuel sites including Park’s Motor Group in Glasgow, Loch Services on Isle of Lewis, Abbotsinch Service Station in Glasgow and Adderstone Service Station in North England.

And more good news on this front was when Deebee Wholesale also approved EDGEPoS as the EPOS supplier to fuel retailers.

C-Store Collective, a group of three founder consultants and a panel of partner consultants, chose EDGEPoS as the exclusive EPOS provider for their advisory and consultancy business within the convenience sector.

John Heagney, one of three Founding Partners, said “At the C-Store Collective we only align ourselves with partners that are clear leaders in their field of specialism. Our latest partner, Henderson Technology, is a clear leader in its market. We welcome them to C-Store Collective as our exclusive EPOS provider. Henderson Technology provide a very strong platform for convenience store owners to really control their businesses and the fuel element of their system is cutting edge and a market leader.”

Henderson Technology announced its corporate membership for 2020 with Scottish Grocers Federation.

Darren Nickels, Retail Technology Operations Director, said: “We were delighted to have this partnership with SGF for 2020 and we are continuing with this into 2021. We have had fantastic support from the convenience and fuel market across Scotland, with more EDGEPoS installs planned in 2021. Having this partnership only strengthens our commitment to providing Scotland with our award winning EPOS system, and ensuring a first class customer service experience is given at all times.”

Henderson Technology has many innovative products to showcase at these upcoming events. The EPOS company launched the first BP and Texaco hybrid Self-Checkout in its company owned Henderson Retail stores in Northern Ireland, with a number of BP and Texaco branded sites across Scotland and England due to adopt EDGEPoS Self-Checkout in 2021.

Appetite, the Home Delivery, Click n Collect and Hot Food App was also launched in 2020. Appetite, created in partnership with Blu Dot Technologies by Henderson Technology, is fully integrated into the company’s EDGEPoS system meaning stock levels are live and automatically updated so the shopper has the pick of what is on the shelves in real-time.

Always innovating to create efficient processes in store, the app saw a surge in retailers installing the service during lockdown when they started to offer home deliveries, with one retailer reporting 80% of its users are completely new customers.

Darren Nickels said installing the app in-store is seamless: “Retailers are fully supported by our training team which means the software, order terminal and printer can all be installed with full stock uploaded and training completed in around two days.

“This is a game changer for independent retailers. Already our stores have experienced fantastic sales and are attracting new shoppers, with VIVO Glenarm Road in Larne reporting in December that 80% of their orders coming from those who had never shopped with them before. Throughout the pandemic as we all look for different solutions, Appetite has only continued to grow and brings fantastic benefits to our retailers.” In 2020, Henderson Technology also introduced Ubamarket’s mobile retail technology, ‘Scan, Pay, Go!’ to three Henderson Group SPAR and EUROSPAR stores in Northern Ireland, in order to improve the convenience shopping experience for their customers.

Ubamarket’s Scan, Pay, Go! app allows customers to build shopping lists ahead of planned store visits to see what is in stock, be guided around the store and scan products as they shop.

Other benefits of the end-to-end mobile shopping app include allergen and dietary alerts for every product, and sustainability information regarding the recyclability of any plastic packaging associated with each product.

The technology on offer also allows for staff to be deployed elsewhere in the store, and colleagues can help replenish items and safely help customers.

Keeping on the theme of products launched in 2020, Henderson Retail company owned store VIVOxtra in Banbridge was the first store to install the Glory Cash Management closed loop system, with more stores being rolled out in 2021 across Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.

Henderson Technology successfully completed dozens of installs of EDGEPoS Electronic Shelf Edge Labels (ESEL) in 2020 despite the lockdowns in place. ESEL installs in 2020 were in a wide mix of stores across Northern Ireland and there was also an ESEL install completed in Checkout Express, Wimbledon, London.

Dale Beckett, co-owner of Manor Retail Group, installed EDGEPoS Electronic Shelf Edge Labels onsite in March 2020. He said, “EDGEPoS ESELs are super-efficient. They have made the shop more profitable and they have given us better peace of mind, ensuring that customer complaints about wrong pricing have been stamped out completely.”

With a portfolio of EDGEPoS retailers across Scotland, England and Wales, the EPOS supplier will continue to grow its network of EDGEPoS users across the UK, with upcoming exciting announcements about Group and Dealer partnerships in 2021.

Darren Nickels, Retail Technology Operations Director, said, “With wholesaler links in place such as Booker, Costcutter, SPAR, JW Filshill and Deebee Wholesale, we are excited to announce that we will be installing EDGEPoS into a further two symbol groups in 2021 with the development of the wholesaler links due to be completed in early 2021. We are proud to be associated with Unitas Wholesale and are proud to be in discussions with wholesaler groups within this forward thinking company also.

“2021 is going to be a huge year for us and we are delighted with the innovational products that we offer to all EDGEPoS retailers. We are first and foremost an award winning EPOS company with a feature rich and innovational system on offer, but we are so proud of our additional offerings also that are fully integrated with the EDGEPoS system, including Self-Checkout, Head Office, ESELs, and our suite of Mobile App integrations with Gander, Ubamarket, Blu Dot Technologies and BPme.

“We would welcome any retailer across the convenience and fuel forecourt market to get in touch and organise an EDGEPoS online demonstration today and see how the Future of Retail Technology is already here with EDGEPoS,” Nickels concluded.

Alex MacPherson Director of Solution Consultancy at Manhattan Associates, comments: “There was undoubtedly a ‘peak’ in demand at the start of the lockdown period both in the UK and across the globe when eCommerce orders soared; however, that peak has since turned into a complete shift in consumer shopping habits, with eCommerce still winning over in-store orders, despite many shops now being open.”

The main challenge that warehouses have faced is that what was once a fairly predictable process of receiving a batch order per day, has now become highly unpredictable and variable. Orders now have to be picked and fulfilled faster and warehouses find themselves fulfilling both eCommerce orders and store replenishment in the same warehouse.

The average eCommerce order is often in the range of 1.8-2.2 units per order (depending on the industry) which in addition to the race to offer as late a cut off time as possible for next day delivery, has compounded order picking. Organisations now have to work against the clock to ensure they are getting the next day orders out after the website cut off but before the carrier collection, as well as managing orders that come through in the last half an hour.

Click & Collect adds another layer of complexity to the process, with many retailers offering next day Click & Collect in a bid to re-engage consumers and encourage higher store footfall. In addition to this, Nominated Day Delivery creates more challenges as these orders have to be held back to be picked at a later date. With so many variables and without the right tools, it is unsurprising that the picking process can become inefficient.

“Retailers need to have an effective warehouse management system to deal with peaks and troughs in orders,” suggests MacPherson. “With traditional retail, orders were larger and less frequent. With eCommerce – especially throughout peak times – warehouses have to deal with high volumes of small orders. Order Streaming Solutions are key to managing this picking process; the software allocates each order and waits until there is a volume of those orders before creating a pick task. This creates a more efficient picking process.” As many organisations embrace the benefits of automation, order picking environments should still use a combination of both automation and a human workforce to achieve the best results. A traditional Warehouse Management System (WMS) can manage the assignment of picking tasks, but when it comes to automation, these systems can’t always manage it in the most effective way. Warehouse Execution Systems (WES) are key if retailers are to embrace the automated warehouse and ensure that man and machine are working in harmony. WES technology can incorporate order streaming, waveless picking and robotics, creating a more efficient warehouse environment.

“Technologies such as voice, automation and pick to light are not new, but are certainly bringing real changes to order picking operations,” adds MacPherson. “In fact, some automated sorters have been around for 30 years! Robotics, however, is really shaking up the distribution industry, and technology is advancing rapidly. There is a misplaced perception that with the march of the robots, people will not be required in warehouses, but the most efficient warehouses are the ones that use man and machine in harmony – more ‘cobots’ than robots.”

A great example of where robots can boost efficiency is the moving of goods and orders. Pickers often spend 50 per cent of their time walking to pick an order, so by passing goods to robots, they save time by not having to take these orders to a packing station. Robots can reduce human travel time which results in more orders being picked and increased efficiency throughout the warehouse.

Jon Roberts, senior sales manager at OrderWise, comments: “Following the impact of Covid-19, Brexit and the rise of ecommerce demand, the direct-to-consumer (D2C) model has become more prevalent across the UK. For example, Heinz has launched Heinz to Home, enabling consumers to purchase bundles of products online and have them delivered straight to the front door. PepsiCo struggled with a drop in footfall during the pandemic, so launched snacks.com and pantryshop.com back in May.”

With more wholesalers going directly to consumers, businesses are rethinking their warehouse setup entirely to sell stock in other ways.

OrderWise’s best-selling product for wholesalers is its WMS combined with comprehensive warehouse and stock management tools such as Handheld Terminals (HHTs) and courier integrations. Through this integrated solution, wholesalers will maximise productivity and accuracy in the warehouse to make more sales and keep their customers happy.

In particular, OrderWise’s Mobile WMS for Android encompassing HHTs has seen a rise in uptake due to the level of automation it provides for the warehouse. This solution is natively integrated with the WMS and seamlessly links departments of a business together, from the back office to the distribution centre. Businesses will see an increase in pick rates and save time on-boarding new staff and planning day-to-day duties in the warehouse, creating an efficient way of working that reaps results.

“Think about the areas where your business needs help most,” suggests Roberts. “Then, when your business is on the hunt for a new WMS provider to help with different strands, we can determine the exact solution your business is looking for and provide technology that’s fit for purpose. What’s more, WMS and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software doesn’t need to be separated into different pieces of technology.

OrderWise software can incorporate features such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Accounting, which will seamlessly link to activities that are being carried out on the warehouse side.”

Tom Fender, Development Director, TWC, comments: “There is no doubt that consumer behaviours have undergone a seismic shift in 2020 and trends are evolving alongside that change. Our report; The Growing Role of Convenience highlights how convenience retail is changing, the motivating factors, and looks to help wholesalers understand the consumer trends that are behind this shift.”

It will come as no surprise that the biggest area of change has been in the digital revolution that has long been brewing but has burst centre stage in 2020 alongside remote home working, the rise in home deliveries, online ordering, and adoption of new technology. And with the rise in online ordering, consumers have woken up to the fact that, in some cases, they can buy direct from the manufacturer.

“For both retailers and wholesalers, it has never been so important to evidence the value add, to find new and inspiring ways to reach their customers, deliver service excellence and give reasons to buy from them to protect the revenue streams they currently enjoy,” says Fender.

Covid has shown us there is a desire to ‘buy local’ – the value of independent retailers as community stores has been well publicised. As lockdown 3 maintains its grip on the country, community stores remain a vital lifeline for their customers. The indicators are clear, as TWC’s research shows, that some of this growth and loyalty will remain within a ‘post-Covid’ future.

Whilst sustainability and environmentally friendly products are no stranger to our shelves, there is a growing appetite from the consumer to support sustainable purchasing in their homes alongside interest and relevance for those brands who support charities and take their role and responsibility very seriously in this respect.

“Wholesalers have become much more adaptable, nimble and agile – we are seeing changing business models (including direct to consumer), adoption of new technologies and digital strategies that a year ago would never have been considered,” adds Fender. “Changes which under ‘normal’ patterns would have been still evolving five years down the line but were adopted within weeks – even days in some instances. In an industry, which has a very traditional approach (but plenty of entrepreneurial spirit) – we can be proud of that agility and the role that wholesale has played in supplying goods, feeding and supporting communities who have been in great need across the past year.”

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