Meet the member: Hancocks

Confectionery wholesaler Hancocks was forced to close its depot doors when Covid first hit but still found a way to turn a negative into a positive

Step inside any Hancocks depot and it’s immediately clear it’s no run-of-the-mill wholesaler. Faced by a wall of colour and saccharine sweet scent, the confectionery wholesaler’s specialism not so much introduces itself but takes over the senses upon entry.

Inside, it’s a veritable treasure trove of sugary treats, tasty snacks and specialist items. Each one expertly selected to appear on the aisles as part of Hancocks’ unbeatable range. It’s a child’s heaven, just with pallets and checkouts.

“There isn’t a lot we don’t know about confectionery,” explains Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Summerley. “We’ve got a range in store of about 3,000 products and we get through about 7,000 a year.

“We’ve got a team of buyers who are constantly sourcing and looking for new products, so we have quite a bit of churn. But product is our business; we are about confectionery and it changes all the time – new products coming in, old products going out. It’s a constant innovation.”

Prized lines

Based in the Leicestershire town that was home to the business’s first cash and carry when it opened in 1962, Hancocks’ Loughborough head office is the epicentre of the selection process to become one of the wholesaler’s prized lines.

The key to its success has been an innate ability to tap into the confectionery category’s latest trends and picking out the latest must-have products from across the globe.

The wholesaler’s buyers trade with more than 350 suppliers in the US, Middle East and across Europe but also stock some of the more well-known staples, such as Cadbury, Mars and Nestlé, to create a comprehensive product span.

“Our normal way of trying new products [pre-Covid] is getting on a plane and going to a show or a factory, but we’ve had to adapt and it’s worked,” explains Summerley.

“Every quarter, we have what we call a ‘product, product, product’ because it’s all about product. The chief executive and I sit in there and the key members of my team, who are out there finding something, present to us [their picks] for the next three months.

“That might be some real blue-sky stuff that we’ve just thrown around the office to see what people think before we go any further. Product is a really important part of the business – if we don’t buy right, we can’t sell, so we’ve got to carry on innovating.

“I can’t rely on the big brands to run my business because it comes to commercials then, so it’s a race to the bottom. What I like to see is we can offer a different point of view and take the product to market quickly. If we decide on something from the Middle East, we can probably turn it around in 16 weeks.”

New generation

That speed of supply is crucial. With social media abuzz with the latest crazes and new generations of children entering the market all the time, fleet of foot can be all that stands between Hancocks and a boom in sales.

“There’s a product called Crazy Candy Factory Fruit Pops we launched during the first lockdown that went crazy on TikTok. It’s one of these products kids put in their mouth, bite and it pops,” Summerley laughs. “As the product comes in, it sells and we can’t get enough out there.

“You don’t come across those things very often. But if somebody is putting this product all over the world and we happen to be importing, it’s big news.

“There’s one on TikTok now called Brain Licker. That’s been around forever, but it’s gone crazy. The factory in Spain serves the world and has basically stopped shipping because it can’t cope. It’s just  one of those things, they come from left field but can be great. You can’t always know what will win or not – and sometimes you get it wrong – but we win more than we lose.”

Data decisions

While some top sellers come from nowhere, the devil is in the data for others. Hancocks’ team are regularly frisking the numbers – and asking customers and depot staff for feedback – to spot trends as soon as they happen.

And it’s meant they can help their customers to stay ahead of demand, whether it’s stocking up with 99 Flakes shortly before the surge in demand became widespread earlier this year or pinpointing the benefits of buying a slush or ice cream machine.

It’s one of several reasons why business remains to grow for the Unitas member, despite being forced to close the doors of its depots during the first Covid-19 lockdown and seeing many of the specialist retailers having to do the same for a prolonged period since March 2020.

It gave Summerley and the team time to re-evaluate. They closed five underperforming cash and carries and moved several customers online, moving investment towards a new distribution depot in Worksop to fulfil the turn to digital. In 2020, the business recorded a more than 200% growth in online.

“During Covid, our online business exploded,” says Summerley. “We’ve been selling online for a number of years, but even though nobody knew what was going to happen on 27 March when we closed the cash and carry doors temporarily, we found there was still demand.

“Our online business grew very quickly, to the point where we had to open a new warehouse to cope with the demand, which was a great problem to have. We had a business that’s turnover was x and went to y almost overnight.

“Worksop is our distribution depot but also where we import a lot of product. We also use it for our own e-commerce site, UK Sweets, that goes direct to the consumer, but the majority of our customers are B2B.”

Hybrid future

Despite the changing behaviours, Summerley says there’s little chance of Hancocks going exclusively online anytime soon.

“Digital is important to us as a business and we need to stay ahead of that and plan for further growth,” he adds.

“There’s a place for digital and a place for what we call bricks to sit next to each other. Our cash and carries and online are in double-digit growth this year and we’re finding that some customers only shop online, some go in store and others do both.

“We like to talk to our customers and I’d be disappointed if a customer walked into any of our branches and nobody talked to them. Customers want that too, especially when we have new products in.

“It’s about what else can we do to help the retailer. Whether it’s product or packaging, or availability or different ways to shop, we’ll do everything we can to help make them really loyal to Hancocks.”

By doing things differently, Hancocks is on the right track.

confectionery FWD members Hancocks