With the wholesale channel progressing on a huge scale, buying groups have been forced to evolve along with it. Paul Hill investigates how they’ve changed and what they can now offer wholesalers
Speak to anyone outside of the food and drink industry and the chances are they won’t know what a buying group is.
But this core group of companies maintain a very important place within the wholesale sector. From negotiating better contracts with their collective buying power to offering logistical advice, hundreds of independent wholesalers rely on buying groups to help keep their businesses profitable.
Yet, with the wholesale sector witnessing unprecedented change in the past few years, each buying group has evolved its offering for its members to stay relevant and improve their overall service.
Unitas, for example, refuses to call itself a buying group any more, instead using the term ‘selling group’. It recently announced a full rebrand of the foodservice side of the business for this year, as well as a number of changes on the retail side.
This includes its Plan for Profit guides in which it arms its members with fresh category advice for a specific core range of key impulse categories. “Our plans are ambitious,” says managing director Darren Goldney. “We’re continually looking at new ways to drive up sales and profitability for both members
Since the merger of the Today’s Group and Landmark, Goldney has spent time streamlining the business and making it more than just a traditional buying group.
He’s done so by creating one point of contact, one event programme, one central payment system, one digital platform, one promotional programme and one core range scheme, citing these as examples to ensure lower operational costs and more efficient processes for its members.
Meanwhile, Confex, an associate member of Unitas and also a buying group in its own right, made all of its members shareholders in the company at the start of the year. This means it now runs on a model in which future profits made by head office are shared among the membership according to their contribution to group turnover.
Director James Loffet says: “The introduction of member shares and dividends is a practical demonstration of our continuing total commitment to our members, and shows that we work tirelessly for the success and growth of their businesses. Our loyal members now know they will be rewarded for their support.”
This complements Confex’s unique Central Distribution Centre (CDC). A facility it has strategically situated in the Midlands in order to provide suppliers who previously had a minimum drop policy with significant economic advantages in delivering in bulk to the CDC.
It allows Confex to provide members with the ability to order in smaller quantities than would be possible direct with the supplier – helping cash flow and stock planning in the process.
As well as this, in November last year, Confex introduced an online community for members to trade among themselves.
According to Gittins, this platform will be facilitated by head office, giving all members the opportunity to sell to each other while at the same time driving group growth. “We have members who specialise in certain categories and who will now be able to pass on their efficiencies and knowledge to other members through an industry-leading sales platform,” he adds.
Sugro, on the other hand, is differentiating itself by offering an online training programme for its members, in partnership with Bolt Learning.
This programme gives members access to interactive online training modules covering a range of topics, from GDPR and health and safety, to business development skills.
Outgoing managing director Neil Turton says: “At Sugro, we are committed to ensuring our members have access to all the necessary training and support they need to progress.”
With regards to the companies who focus specifically on foodservice, they all work in a similar vein that sets each of them apart from a traditional buying group.
Caterforce, however, has taken it in a different direction and helped its members, Hunts Foodservice and Pioneer Foodservice, open their very first food outlet stores to supply affordable wholesale products to the trade and public.
The outlets stock a unique range of products including restaurant-quality wholesale ingredients, as well as everyday groceries and fresh meat.
Included in this are Caterforce’s own-label Chefs’ Selections – an ever-expanding collection of more than 350 fridge, freezer and store cupboard staples the buying group produces solely for its members.
Since its inception in 2012, Chefs’ Selections has grown to be a £50m+ brand, and the buying group has now added its own coffee to its offer in the form of Roast 440.
Recently appointed Caterforce managing director Gary Mullineux explains: “The UK coffee market is growing rapidly, and consumers expect a great cup of coffee anytime, anywhere.
“This enables us to offer exclusivity at competitive prices in the right sizes, pack formats and blends for our customers.
”The Country Range Group runs a similar operation in which it offers more than 800 products in its own personal range covering grocery, chilled, frozen and non-food to its members.
But on top of this, it also works with its members and society in general to run an annual Student Chef Challenge.
Running every year and culminating at this year’s Hospitality, Restaurant and Catering Show in a live final in London, City of Liverpool College was crowned the 2019/20 winners. The judges focused on how students use classic techniques and skills to maximise the use of ingredients, while also reducing food waste.
Fairway Foodservice is another buying group which, like its competitors, has begun what it calls a digital transformation to shake up how foodservice companies interact online.
Last year, it unveiled a new website, which included an intelligent on-site search for its own-brand range, as well as a newsletter that targets caterers.
Additional benefits for users include a site structure that enables caterers to search directly for a product, as well as by cuisine type to support operators seeking creativity with recipes.
A newsletter titled Fairway Insider is also now being sent to caterers across the UK and will provide tips and advice to help them grow their business and increase efficiencies across their operations.
Toby Jordan, marketing strategist at Fairway, says: “We recognise the importance of embracing online technologies and supporting our members and caterers to integrate it with their marketing and business activity.
“We have invested a lot of time and resources into our digital revamp, and our 20 members are thrilled so far with the results.
“The intelligent search of our Fairway Assured range is particularly exciting. Caterers are often incredibly short on time and our functionality speeds up the buying process as well as offering new ideas for recipes and menus. In addition, they will be able to view product specification, including nutritional information, thanks to integrating Erudus with the site.”
In February, meanwhile, Unitas launched the The Unitas Data Service (UDS) solution, which allows suppliers to convert sales data into insight that will help them build joint business plans with members.
Powered by TWC’s Alchemy platform, it brings together wholesale shipment data for members into one reporting framework and is backed up by a 24/7 helpdesk, user support videos, support team and face-to-face training.
Tanya Pepin, chief executive of TWC, explains: “As data becomes a central requirement from which to drive better business, the new Data Service has been created to help members and suppliers enjoy growth based on understanding, knowledge and hard facts. It’s important to move with the times and the Data Service does just that in a way that is easy, comprehensive and secure.”
“Effective use of data is now an imperative for operators in this channel,” adds Goldney. “The new Data Service sits at the heart of our drive to become a selling group and this upgraded system is set to become the cornerstone of the future.”
So, whatever direction the wholesale sector ends up heading towards, the buying groups look ready to deal with every eventuality.
Whether it’s digital, social media, training, data, own-brand ranges or even work within greater society, the definition of a buying group no longer covers what they can now offer wholesalers.