Though they still sometimes come up short, anecdotal evidence suggests gripes about the major wholesalers are less commonplace than they once were. Competition between wholesale symbol groups for retailers’ business to add to their own buying power has brought a generally more professional approach in the past decade or so. Indirectly, more powerful supermarkets have brought independent better wholesalers.
Dennis Williams owns the Broadway Convenience Store, a Booker Premier member in Oxgangs on the outskirts of Edinburgh. He has been in the independent retail business for the best part of 40 years, so he knows a good wholesaler when he sees one. “The biggest thing is availability,” he says. “If you haven’t got stock, you can’t sell anything.”
A good promotional programme is a plus, Williams adds, but the right chemistry between retailer and wholesaler is just as important.
“You’ve got to have a good working relationship with your branch manager,” he says. “It’s important that you can talk to them in confidence about any issues and get them sorted out right away.”
He also thinks communication between shop and depot or head office can help both parties in making the right business decisions.
“It’s a working partnership,” adds Williams. “One of the things Booker does is organise a Premier development group, which meets twice a year. We get one-to-one contact with the directors of trading, which is usually one for each part of the business, whether it’s produce, grocery or drinks.
“We get to walk round a cash and carry together and talk about new lines or ideas they’re working on and give them feedback. When we’re at ground level every day, we can play an important role in providing feedback on what will or won’t work.
“One important thing for us with Booker is that it does Scottish lines as well, but it all comes back to availability, being disciplined and clean and tidy – the same sort of thing that makes a good independent retailer, but just on a bigger scale.”
Over the years, many Premier members have found the flexibility of the package and being allowed to use suppliers other than Booker to be attractive, but Williams says he doesn’t make use of this.
“It’s just the way I run my business, and others may have a different approach,” he says. “I can’t see the point of spending time going to Glasgow to drive round cash and carries looking for a cheap deal on a certain product when I could be spending that running the shop – and that’s before you even consider your fuel costs.”
Ravi Basra – whose family’s Harlescott Convenience Store in Shrewsbury won Best Convenience Store section at this year’s OLN Drinks Retailing Awards – agrees with Williams that availability is a primary consideration in picking a wholesaler.
But he favours shopping around, picking up items from a number of depots down the M54 in Birmingham because it helps solve availability problems that might arise from using just a single supplier.
“It also means we can be constantly trying to get a better price,” he says. “In a place such as Shrewsbury, choice of wholesalers is limited, but in Birmingham there are more to choose from and they are more competitive.
“With winning the award we’ve had a lot of publicity in the local press and done some advertising. It’s very important – if the wholesaler has advertised a deal then we advertise it to our customers – that we can get our hands on the stock. If we don’t, the customer is just going to think it’s our fault.
“So promotions and availability are both important and they go hand-in-hand.”
The more specialist an independent retailer is, the more specialist it needs its wholesalers to be. Dedicated beer and spirits shops use a different spectrum of wholesalers, but availability is still high on the list of those stores’ priorities.
Leigh Norwood, who runs Favourite Beers in Cheltenham, says: “One large beer wholesaler that I use publishes great long lists of beers, but then you ring up and find that it hasn’t actually got a lot of them in stock. You’ve also got to watch out for being sent out-of-date stock as well – I’ve had that one a few times.”
A transparent business relationship is also important to Norwood.
“They’ve got to be honest with prices,” he says. “There have been some I’ve used in the past where I’ve found out they have different rates for different shops. I’ve also fallen out with some because they’re just unreliable and don’t communicate.
“On the plus side, I’ve used James Clay an awful lot and it is very upfront. It’ll even keep things by for me. If it gets some interesting new beers in, it’s happy to put some aside for when I’m ready to make my next order. Some won’t do that – it’s order now or miss out.”
A key difference with wholesalers in the speciality arena is their ability to supply niche lines rather than the big market leaders.
Norwood says: “Because I’m generally ordering a pallet a lot of the time, variety is important and I want to get as many different styles of beer as I can on one order.
“If a wholesaler just specialises in American or German beer, you can’t really do that.
“But the better beer wholesalers will have a bit of everything from the UK, Europe, the US and so on.
“It also helps if they have a number of microbrewers in their part of the UK and can source interesting beers from them to add to an order. I’ve managed to do that a few times.”
Range, availability and good customer service are what makes a good wholesaler – pretty much the same basic elements a good retailer needs, really.