James Bielby

Bielby column: Uncertainty reigned in 2019 but plenty of positives

Uncertainty may have reigned supreme for the majority of 2019 but, as FWD’s chief executive says in his final column of the year, there have still been plenty of positives in the past 12 months and cause for optimism looking forward

What a stop-start year 2019 has been. Three times wholesalers prepared for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, buying in extra stock and renting storage space to ensure their customers wouldn’t be disrupted if the worst came to the worst. Which it didn’t – not in March, April or October and now the threat passes into January or maybe the end of 2020. If you have cried wolf three times, can you expect the same response if you do it again?

It’s no secret the ongoing Brexit delays and the costs to businesses have stifled investment and innovation in the UK economy. Uncertainty is the enemy of investment and 2019’s hurry-up-and-wait has squeezed resources across the board. But as the Gold Medal winners and finalists demonstrated in November, even in the most uncertain circumstances, the wholesale sector continues to move forward and expand its horizons.

Looking at what’s happened in the retail and foodservice markets in the past 12 months, the wholesale sector has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Our own foodservice customers are thriving, even at a time when several larger restaurant chains have overextended themselves. And while consolidation in retail continues, there’s a clear move towards smaller-format stores. That’s a huge growth opportunity for businesses who already excel at serving the needs of huge, diverse customer bases and helping them to thrive.

Another area where we’ve seen progress is the digitalisation of wholesale distribution. Our customers are also consumers; they are used to the interface of Amazon and the delivery options of Deliveroo and Ocado. The time will come when they’ll accept nothing less from their wholesaler – a message that has resonated with FWD members as we’ve seen several upgrades in online-ordering and customer engagement platforms this year.


Similarly, the easy access to comprehensive data that suppliers have with other RTMs is an advantage wholesale is beginning to address. At FWD, for example, we’re working on a market read and market map to help suppliers measure their investment in the channel.

The depot is changing too, with delivery and collection, click and collect, and other variations combining the best of the traditional model with the convenience of new technologies. With retail and foodservice outlets now merging in the middle, the scope for selling more product to a wider range of customers is a positive development.

The year-long Brexit hiatus was compounded by the general election, which effectively resets the legislative agenda and closes – or at least pauses – many of the workstreams FWD has been pursuing as wholesale distribution’s voice in Westminster. A new government brings new priorities and new challenges, and you can read what we anticipate these will be in this month’s Final Word column (on p42).

For me, the highlight of the year has been the engagement we’ve seen with our FWD events, meetings and training sessions. Hundreds of wholesalers, suppliers and service providers have gathered to talk, learn, share and influence each other under the FWD banner. Even if the year has had its frustrations, we can look back on this co-operation with a great deal of pride and optimism that together we can tackle whatever challenges 2020 throws our way.

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