Meet the Member: HT Drinks

There aren’t many wholesalers whose stock is directly influenced by a rap megastar. Yet as Sanjay Thakrar regales Wholesale News with the tale of how HT Drinks was flooded with requests for a bottle of champagne created by Canadian musician Drake, it’s clear how much his business relies on keeping its finger on the pulse.

While the prospect of sourcing a $400 bottle of the exclusive Mod Sélection may have stumped many wholesalers, Thakrar and his team set about finding a UK supplier to make sure their customers weren’t forced to look elsewhere.

“If you look at Drake’s Instagram, there’s pictures of him with champagne all the time. People see it because he’s got 60 million followers, so they start Googling it. When he was in the UK this summer, we got people calling us to ask if we sell it, so then we find who the agent is and bring it in for them,” explains Thakrar.

“A lot of wholesalers wouldn’t do that and it’s a great example of why being driven by consumers instead of retailers means we know what we need to sell today, as well as tomorrow. It’s all about reacting to trends and data.”

Of course, that approach doesn’t happen by accident. And that’s because HT Drinks is no ordinary wholesaler.

While the business started life as a drinks specialist wholesaler supplying off-licences, it has morphed into a much bigger beast across the past two decades: supplying the on-trade, launching a consumer-facing sales website and extending into gifting.

As well as providing new streams of revenue into the business to ensure it continues to grow, the data the team pick up by selling directly to consumers means they can gain foresight that keeps them ahead of more traditional rivals.

“I don’t think some wholesalers understand what the data is telling them and how to spot trends,” explains Ravi Kotecha, Managing Director of Drink Supermarket, HT Drinks’ consumer-facing website.

“We can see those trends through Drink Supermarket: we stock something first and then suddenly see it stocking everywhere. Generally, we’re miles ahead. As a wholesaler, we were one of the first to offer such a wide variety of gins [when that trend took off] and our sales went through the roof.

“People then catch up and it becomes about price, but it’s important to stay ahead. We also need specialist knowledge of things such as wine, but the data guides us. Craft beer was another trend we were ahead on and no-alcohol is the next big one we’re making space for.”

Being aware of what’s going to be big before the boom has obvious advantages, although providing what a wide breadth of customers wants is the way HT Drinks takes advantage of it. As a member of Unitas, the wholesaler stocks its four sites – in Wembley, Brighton, Birmingham and its headquarters in Park Royal in London – with core lines but also has close relationships with suppliers to stock more diverse products too.

That means carrying an extensive range of beers, wines and spirits to cater for less mainstream tastes. A walk through the Park Royal depot’s display area showcases obscure flavours and specially designed bottles, as well as high-end options, including 15-litre champagne magnums.

Each bottle of the more premium products is displayed individually so customers don’t have to fork out for an entire case.

“Some of the things we stock, you won’t find in a Bestway or a Booker,” explains Thakrar. “Our product portfolio is what differentiates us and if a customer wants something we don’t have, we’ll get it because we work directly with all the brand owners.

“We have 15-litre bottles of champagne and 12-litre bottles of vodka in stock that you won’t get in your average cash and carry, so we class ourselves as drink specialists, even though we have recently diversified into grocery and confectionery.”

The move to offer a variety of non-drink essentials 18 months ago is a prime example of how HT Drinks is prepared to move with the times and not be afraid to try something new. Drinks is its lifeblood, but with retailers asking for more, Thakrar and his brothers, Sagar and Shohil, who run HT Drinks with him, didn’t hesitate to adapt.

That ethos has seen them invest in an ordering app for wholesale customers and the ability to create bespoke gift boxes for several of the multiples and Drink Supermarket.

Alongside this, HT Drinks is also the drinks supplier of choice for the likes of Very and Moonpig, with a £20,000 bottle engraver brought in to offer another layer of service for those customers.

Innovation is king throughout each of HT Drinks’ channels and no part of the business is left to stagnate. The ingenuity even spreads into how they sell certain products to make them more appealing.

“We now do mixed boxes of baby food,” Thakrar tells Wholesale News as he points to a pile of boxes of product put together within the depot.

“Danone had come to us and said it wanted off-licences and independent stores to start selling baby products. However, the cost of a pack of these products is around £160, so we created a mixed pack, designed the poster and put it all in a branded box to sell it.

Danone loves it because it gets an entire  portfolio into store for £16 – if certain products sell really well, the store comes back for more.

“We work with brand owners to find solutions that work for them and us. This was our suggestion as the way to penetrate the market and it’s working.”

The idea of mixing products together is of benefit to brands on Amazon too, which has meant HT Drinks bypasses the threat of being beaten on price by the online retailer.

“We often sell bundle products together because then if we sell on Amazon, which we do with Drink Supermarket, we’ve got a bespoke pack and not just a generic product,” Thakrar continues.

“Amazon is a threat to brands because it’ll sell products under the price everyone else is selling at, bringing down the value of that brand. That makes everyone else look uncompetitive, so we then can’t sell that brand because Amazon is leading a race to the bottom. The only way we can get around that is by creating bespoke packs so we’re selling a different product.”

Flexibility is now the backbone of what HT Drinks is aiming to achieve in the future, with Thakrar’s next focus on making the most of the growing delivery arm of his business.

While he understands that reaching customers all over the UK from a few well-placed distribution hubs is the direction the market is going, he doesn’t want to lose sight of what has made HT Drinks a success in the first place.

“I don’t want us to become a logistics and transport company,” Thakrar adds. “We have more than 30 delivery vehicles now and have hired a transport manager, but that’s not what we want to become.

“What’s happened to some of our competitors is they have big fixed overheads in the number of depots and staff they have and the customer doesn’t want to go to them anymore, you have to go to the customer.

“Now it’s about distribution and that’s the future – you don’t need 100 depots anymore to get to your customer, and that’s what we’re looking at. Our advantage is that we’re lean compared to those guys, yet we can compete because we have technology that’s as good as theirs and a team that’s as good as theirs, but we don’t have the large fixed overheads.”

And how will HT Drinks measure its success? It’s all in the numbers.

digital Drake e-commerce HT Drinks retail Unitas wholesaler