James Bielby

We bid farewell to a year of heartbreak, with still much to do – Bielby

How can you sum up 2020? It’s the year where two seismic events – one a ‘known unknown’ and the other a completely ‘unknown unknown’ – tested the resilience of individuals, businesses and indeed the entire food supply chain.

This year has taken a lot from us. Many FWD members have had to deal with a fall in sales of up to 80%, and as we come out of the truncated festive season in January, we might see an acceleration of closures among our hospitality base. Whatever happens, the foodservice market is likely to have contracted permanently by 10-15% this year.

Through the skills and determination of business leaders (and with little help from the government) we have in the most part avoided closures among wholesalers – for now. But with more than 40% of wholesalers telling a recent Defra survey that their business is now at risk of insolvency, the business outlook is gloomy.

This year also took away great stalwarts of our industry, much missed by us here at FWD: Steve Barnett of Costco, Don Wouhra of East End Foods, and Trevor Harrison of Turner Price, among others.

Almost as heartbreakingly, 2020 saw one in 10 of the 60,000 people employed by our members lose their jobs, with 80% of wholesalers making job cuts. For those colleagues who have been made redundant, and the many still on furlough, we can only offer the belief that wholesale will adapt, evolve and bounce back to the point where their invaluable skills are required again.

The year we also lost the ability to meet, talk, learn and share in face-to-face settings. Relatively unimportant compared to the other losses but it’s a fundamental change for a sector which has built effective partnerships on personal relationships.

So what positives can we take from this trying year? We never let the customers down. Schools, care homes and hospitals were supplied at their time of need, and whenever caterers of all kinds were able to open up between the stop-start Covid restrictions, the stock was there waiting for them. That’s a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of both wholesalers and suppliers.

We’ve seen incredible innovation at great speed, with home delivery and click-and-collect models springing up, and accelerated adoption of digital platforms for ordering and payment. Logistical efficiencies have been found even in the face of constantly shifting demand. New routes to market have been explored and expanded. Wholesalers and suppliers are sharing data like never before, increasing the understanding of the customers’ needs. And retail has had its best year for a generation.

This crisis has raised the profile of our industry, not only to government, where we are better plugged in than ever with ministers and officials, but also with the public, as FWD members have taken to the airwaves and news pages to explain their situation. Wholesale is now also represented for the first time on the Food and Drink Sector Council, a recognition of our importance in the supply chain.

Looking ahead, 2021 doesn’t immediately offer much solace. We’re far from out of the woods with Covid and the full impact of Brexit is not yet clear. The economic repercussions of both will reverberate for years to come.

The hospitality sector faces a very uncertain future. We’ll see changes in high streets which will affect both retailers and caterers, and demand will be different in travel hubs, workplaces and city centres. We should be aware that among the winners of the Covid era are the massive B2C aggregators and the supermarkets, who are keen to offer their own wholesale service to independent retailers.

Those supermarkets have had more direct support from government than our sector, which is galling, but we can also say that when allocations to wholesale were under pressure, officials stepped in to ensure those serving vulnerable communities were able access the products they needed from their supplier partners. That was just one of the ways FWD has been able to use its influence with government on behalf of the sector this year.

On that front, we keep fighting. It’s our job at FWD to represent your interests to a government that is deluged with demands for cash. The vital nature of the service that food distributors provide, and the support of the entire sector in supplying data to Defra, lobbying MPs and helping officials understand the complexities of food supply, has helped hugely in making our case – but there is still much to do.

It’s going to be an unusual Christmas and a very different New Year, but the team at FWD is fully committed to helping you through this and beyond, with advice, information and non-stop representation at the highest levels of influence.

Thank you for all your help and support in 2020 – we couldn’t do any of what we do without you.