In the few days since Charles Wilson announced he’ll be stepping down as CEO of Booker, TWC, like most of the industry, paused to reflect on the impact he’s had since taking the helm at Booker in 2005 and deciding to step down in 2020.

Charles famously turned Booker around on a three-step principle of improving choice, price, and service and measuring this via customer satisfaction data.  But we all know this is somewhat over-simplifying his approach to running the UK’s largest wholesale operator…

 

Charles Wilson

Beneath the mantra was a leader who got his whole team – from delivery driver and replenishment person to regional director – to focus obsessively on his success measures.  As any business leader will acknowledge, even if you have the right objectives in place, getting hundreds of staff to focus on the same goals and move seamlessly in the same direction is exceedingly difficult. 

Choice, price, service

Then overlay the obsessive focus on choice, price, and service with the fact he managed to strip cost out of the business as part of the initial turnaround, while keeping it operationally functional. He then drove growth and loyalty via retail club and online, before most wholesale operators had fully embraced either. And he did all of it with a forensic focus on data, using it to drive decisions and make future predictions, and living by what Booker’s shipment data told him.    

His team then reverse engineered Musgrave into Booker, and had the foresight to quickly align pricing to get loyalty from Londis retailers before scooping up the lion’s share of the P&H business when it collapsed. It makes me breathless when I consider the level of strategic thinking and detailed insight required to pull all that off. It’s way more than choice, price, and service. This is a working model of total clarity on how to turn round an ailing business, how to grow in a stagnant marketplace, how to maximise the use of data to make decisions, and how to integrate new businesses quickly and successfully to capitalise on opportunity.

So what now? 

The part that made us sit back and think in the wake of Charles Wilson’s announcement, is the impact on pricing in our channel. Although price was one of the three tenets of his strategy, Booker was never the cheapest operator in town – never playing the race to the bottom game. Even after the merger with Tesco, their wholesale pricing hasn’t dramatically dipped and their operating model didn’t radically change.

One reason they haven’t had to be the cheapest in town is that they left it to other operators in the big cities and focused on serving the regions well. If they now want to compete hard on price, they’ll have to ramp up their offer in major conurbations that they’ve historically left to other operators to slug out. 

 

charles wilson

It is surely coincidence, but how interesting that Charles is stepping down just as Tesco is going to war on price. They’re already running into possible disputes with companies like Haribo as they seek to compete with Aldi and Lidl on price by cutting promotions and replacing a high/low strategy with  everyday low pricing.  And we all know where this leads – to a re-introduction of high/low in the future but using EDLP as the baseline for normal sell price. 

And what if Tesco wanted to then bring its price fight into wholesale?  It could do this quite effectively if it flexed its combined buying power – something it hasn’t really done so far.  But what of serving the city centres?  It could potentially convert some of its Tesco Extra stores into trade-only depots; meaning it’s starting to sweat an asset that hasn’t been earning money, and reaching all parts of the country with a cheapest on display model.

So what can other wholesalers do as a counter-attack to this threat?

Implement a forensic focus on pricing and margin.

Step away from being cheapest on display and embrace being the best value. Ecommerce operators like Amazon have demonstrated how easy it is to flex price with the right algorithms. Technology today enables wholesalers to be much more strategic and personalised with pricing. One retailer’s concept of cheap will be another’s idea of expensive. You can’t please everyone with price-per-case, but you can play some clever tunes with margin management if you vary your pricing according to the type of customer you’re serving, the moment in time they’re shopping, and the urgency they need goods. You can also recover lost margin by rewarding loyalty and disincentivise “deal junkie” behaviour by changing the rules.

 

While Tesco is moving to EDLP and people wait to see what Booker will do, there’s no evidence that retailers have lost their appetite for a great deal. 

Our advice would be, don’t watch and wait – use your data platforms to gain insights, then get coding so you can lead the way in personalised pricing.

 

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