James Bielby

Bielby column: Lots to learn from FWD conference

FWD’s Chief Executive discusses the five valuable lessons the wholesale industry can take from last month’s annual conference

Last month’s FWD conference was our annual gathering of the wholesale family and, like any family which hasn’t met for a year, there was a lot of catching up to do. Throughout the day we gauged the mood in the room via an online poll. As each speaker added their contribution, we saw themes emerging that will help to shape the future of wholesale, this year’s conference focus.

1. The consumer is always right

At the start of the day our audience chose customer engagement as their top priority for the success of the channel. But as the sessions progressed a new imperative emerged: understanding the needs, expectations and economic drivers of end users. Hazel Detsiny of Unilever Food Solutions told us to prepare for a future where houses do not have a kitchen; Bidfood’s Sarah Whiddett imagined scenarios where restaurants are virtual reality constructs and food is 3D printed in our homes. All of these require a wholesaler, but their role will look very different.

In the FWD-commissioned Centre for Future Studies report on the future of the channel, the importance of following the consumer is flagged as critical to wholesale’s success.

2. Don’t get stuck in the squeezed middle

Consolidation of the grocery market was inevitably a big topic, but as a resilient sector that has evolved to
meet changing needs, the mood among wholesalers was positive.

As Today’s Group’s MD Darren Goldney said, if the mults are coming for our business we must be doing
something right. With supermarkets looking to become wholesalers, FWD’s David Visick asked our wholesaler panel if they should be looking at becoming retailers. Their answer? Watch this space.

3. There’s no data deficit

It’s a widely held belief that the wholesale sector is less adept at providing suppliers with sales data than other routes to market. But it’s not down to a lack of available data, it’s more about how to use it effectively. As Store Excel’s David Gilroy said, the supposed data deficit is actually a data surfeit. Martin Race of Bestway said wholesalers “need to get over” their reluctance to share data.

4. The depot’s not dead

Rumours of the death of cash and carry have been greatly exaggerated. That’s not to say depots don’t need to change. Better displays, smaller depots and designated areas for picking, trade and public use
will service the needs of ‘hybrid wholesalers’ in a multi-channel future.

5. Networking does the business

With 280 people visiting our sponsors’ stands and meetings going on well into the night, we can only conclude that whatever digital, virtual reality or robotic future we’re heading for, how we anticipate and adapt to those opportunities will come from face-to-face contact with our industry colleagues. So here’s to a future of continued conversation, co-operation and friendship in our wholesale family.

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