FWD 2022 conference, James Bielby

FWD conference: Wholesalers positive despite cost-of-living crisis

One day almost wasn’t enough to fit in all of the talking points at this year’s FWD conference, such is the current state of the nation. But somehow that’s exactly what was achieved as more than 70 industry members starred on stage or screen for a bumper edition of the annual event.

There’d been less than nine months between the 2022 and 2021 events because of last year’s rearranged conference, but it felt like a chasm of time with so much changing and developing in the sector.

Some of the issues, such as inflation and recruitment, could be seen on the horizon last year, but others have taken us all by surprise. Not least, the war in Ukraine and resulting supply challenge that’s blighting the sector.

The Ukraine conflict sat the top of FWD’s policy matrix in terms of the current issues impacting wholesale, with squeezes caused by fuel and energy cost rises, public sector food prices staying behind inflation, and the introduction of Brexit checks also high on the agenda.

The cost-of-living crisis currently taking a stranglehold of the UK was an inevitable thread running throughout the day, but not everyone was mirroring the doom and gloom of the national newspapers.

“The numbers are still buoyant and we’re still seeing that pent-up consumer frustration [caused by Covid-19] coming through,” Bidfood CEO Andrew Selley explained.

“If I was only looking at sales figures and not reading the newspapers, I wouldn’t be thinking of economic recession and downturn – we’re in a buoyant industry and things are going well.

“But conversely, you’d be stupid to ignore all of the pressures we see coming with increased cost of increased food inflation and increased regulation from the government. It’s tough but we’ve been through tough times before.”

With these problems coming down the track so soon after emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a bullish feeling among many of the panellists who took to the stage. Having stared down the barrel of a gun as the virus took hold in March 2020, a worst-case scenario has been averted once and encouraged businesses to build contingency plans into any future projects.

Confex Managing Director Tom Gittins spoke about how their members are run a lot more efficiently than previously, allowing them to be even more adaptable and able to deal with problems coming their way – even if cost of living would become more noticeable as government money dried up.

It’s a sentiment that Creed Foodservice Managing Director Philip de Ternant agrees with, saying that they are “more used to these problems than before” and saying the key learning from Covid was to focus on the key things customers still care about: availability and service.

“It’s all about collaboration down the supply chain,” Pricecheck Joint Managing Director Debbie Harrison added. “It’s about working together to cut out cost and simplifying the distribution process. We need to spread margin fairly between us – thinning less, but a little.”

While there is hope that cuts on fuel duty, among other measures, may be introduced by the government to curb the need for businesses to make cuts, working together across the supply chain is the route that is likely to get best results. As sponsors, American Express, pointed out that can mean looking at new ways to help each other with costs by extending payment terms – something their services and products could help with. But there are other ways too.

“Promotions are vitally important because consumers and retailers are looking for value at the moment,” said Unitas Managing Director John Kinney. “Promotions play a very important part – the right promotions at the right prices and the right product.”

“NPD and innovation needs to come to the fore again because we haven’t had much of that for the past two years,” Bidfood’s Selley expanded.

“The need to offer people development, and focus on legislative changes and ESG – they aren’t going to go away. You may change your focus and prioritise one or another at different times, but as wholesalers we’re used to keeping those plates spinning.

“We’ve got fantastic suppliers and fantastic customers and if we keep coming up with the right solutions and innovation, I think we can ride this out.”

For more discussion and coverage from FWD’s 2022 conference, look out for August’s Wholesale News. Not a subscriber? You can sign up for your free copy here.

Andrew Selley Bidfood Confex Creed Foodservice Debbie Harrison FWD John Kinney Philip de Ternant Pricecheck Tom Gittins Unitas