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Case Study 2: Getting local food into the wholesale market

The project: The Eat Somerset project ran from June 2006 to March 2009. Coordinated by Sustain, the project was funded in its first phase (to June 2008) by a charitable grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, with additional support from Friends of the Earth. The aim of the first phase was to develop trading links and new markets for local food producers, supporting 15 supplier businesses, and increasing the range of local produce available in six shops. The first phase of the project also involved Somerset Food Links, a not-for-profit organisation working to promote greater use of sustainable food. This series of Case Studies provides information on how the project developed, successes achieved and challenges faced in the first phase of the project.

Wholesalers

Nutcombe chocolates being made by hand (Source: Somerset Food Links)

One of the Eat Somerset project’s key targets for increasing sales of local produce is the convenience store market. As one strand of the Eat Somerset project, we have therefore examined how to work with wholesalers, identified as an important route for getting more ambient local produce into the mainstream supply chain for the convenience store market. Working with wholesale distribution proved to be especially challenging, and required several different experimental approaches. We are delighted to say that these have eventually paid off and that several local producers are now supplying into Booker’s cash & carry in the southwest. Through this process, we have learned a great deal about the needs of the wholesale market and the barriers to uptake and sales of local produce through this type of outlet. In this document, we recount the project’s challenges and successes in some detail, to inform future work in this important area, and to reflect on opportunities and next steps.

Work began with Booker (http://www.booker.co.uk/), a national cash & carry company that is the leading wholesaler for caterers, retailers and businesses. It has 172 branches nationwide and operates several stores in the southwest, with a large store at Norton Fitzwarren just outside Taunton. The company had previously carried out a trial of supplying local foods in its Cornwall store, which is continuing, and has had reasonable success. As a result, Booker said that they were interested in engaging with the Eat Somerset project. Some issues had arisen in the project in Cornwall, making it challenging for smaller food producers to supply to Booker, including:

  • Bar coding: suppliers had raised concerns about bar coding, but Booker said they had “started a process in Booker to manage this”. At first, it was not clear precisely what issues or concerns needed to be addressed. However, Booker has now shared its local sourcing guidelines booklet with Eat Somerset (although this is commercially confidential, so cannot be more widely circulated);
  • Credit: the electronical data interchange process is laborious for a small food company, but Booker has come up with flexible conditions to enable them to at least trial using it;
  • Brand perception: Booker managed to accept produce from local food companies in both the premium ranges and as commodities. One example is dairy, where Roskilly’s ice cream was marketed as a premium item, while local butter portions were sold as staples.

Working with Booker – the first attempt

In August 2006 the Eat Somerset project officer and Somerset Food Links met with Jan Wheatley, Booker’s regional manager, to discuss how we could work together to increase uptake and sales of local produce by Booker. Representatives from Gundenham Dairy (John Cottrell), Tower Farms cheesemakers (Geoff White) and Source producers’ co-op (Jane Birch) also attended. The following issues were discussed:

  • Exclusivity: Booker were interested in this, but the project could not offer it as it is not in its interest to limit supplies of local food in any way.
  • Price: there were lengthy discussions about how prices could be set, whether producers would be able to offer enough margin for a distributor and wholesaler such as Booker.
  • Bar coding: the mechanics of doing it, the possible need for a training workshop and the barriers to small companies doing it. Somerset Food Links offered to undertake further research.
  • Beef labelling scheme: Booker have registered with this government-led beef traceability system.
  • Negotiations: these have been done locally by the store manager, rather than centrally or regionally. This is also how it will work in Taunton.
  • Drop shipments: this is a way of selling products directly from the producer to the consumer without going physically to the Booker store. Such producers are listed in a special booklet as being available via Booker, and if orders are placed, the producer supplies direct and Booker carry out the invoicing and credit functions. They take a percentage for this, usually about 7%. About 80% of Booker’s current products come from central distribution, with the rest on drop shipment to customers or supplied direct to Booker stores by some large suppliers.
  • Meat: there has been a problem with Booker customers wanting only certain cuts of meat, while small farmers need to sell whole animals. A trial to sell meat boxes via Booker could be considered.
  • Audits: these will have to be carried out for each supplier and each product if they are to be presented as regular Booker items on the cash & carry shelves. This will not be the case for drop shipments. It would take two weeks minimum to carry out an audit.
  • Promotions: Booker do catering menus and wine menus, but do not promote local food on these as yet. They have however, recently promoted Dorset Cereals as a distinctive southwest brand. There is potential for further development in this area.

Local Food Producers

Somerset Food Links contacted producers on its database to find out which of the identified potential suppliers would be interested in being part of a scheme working with Booker. Several responded and detailed conversations were had with these about next steps.

‘Source’ Producer Co-op

Jane Birch, who worked for Somerset Food Links as the Exmoor & Quantocks project officer, was involved in setting up the ‘Source’ producer co-op. Booker had stated a preference for working with a single supplier to handle a wide range of products, rather than lots of small suppliers – so the Source producer co-op was presented as a coordinator of such an approach. A member of the co-op (who is also a co-op Board Member), attended further meetings with Booker and the Eat Somerset project. It was decided that:

  • Somerset Food Links would encourage those producers on its database who wished to work with Booker to join the Source producer group.
  • Source would become a supplier to Booker and complete all usual paperwork to that end.
  • Some producers who were large enough might work direct with Booker, rather than via Source (Gundenham and Tower Farms were mentioned, but although both these firms contacted Booker, nothing went forward. John Wilcox, the Manager of Booker in Taunton, has since stated that he cannot source milk from any local company as Booker has a national agreement with one dairy).
  • Booker would produce a leaflet (drafted by Eat Somerset) to promote the sale of local products via Source.
  • Further detailed discussions would be had with Source about logistics.
  • Booker would hold a farmers’ market type event, with the help of Eat Somerset, in its store on 7 December 2006, when it has a pre-Christmas promotional Open Day that is marketed to all its customers.

The project contacted the specialist bar-code organisation GS1UK (http://www.gs1uk.org/), a not-for-profit organisation helping members to implement GS1 standards through the use of bar code, radio frequency identification and other systems for product traceability and identification. GS1UK said that they would in principle be willing to negotiate a reduced deal for a larger number of producers joining the scheme. However, bar coding costs about £100-200 to set up and therefore should not be a barrier to most businesses.

Local food producers were then contacted and lined up for the Booker Open Day, and a meeting was fixed for October 2006 for Booker’s Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) specialists to come down to talk through paperwork with Source. Immediately, difficulties emerged: Source was already overloaded with paperwork and could not handle the additional demands of EDI plus losing 7% of margin; producers already paid 20% to Source and were unwilling to pay more, while Source had no other funds to pay for EDI.

This discussion went on for some time until Booker felt that it was not possible to go ahead with the December event (for which it had already organised publicity) in the time left, while organisational issues remained unresolved, and suggested delaying it until their next scheduled Open Day in March/April 2007. Eat Somerset agreed, and worked with Source to review options. Source decided to identify producers interested in dealing with Booker, and to offer them the chance to have a trial membership of Source (no up-front fee, but higher commission of 25%). Several new members took up this trial offer and indicated they might join Source as a result.

Booker’s Taunton manager and regional manager attended an Eat Somerset steering group meeting at this point and contributed positively. The Source manager continued discussions with the local Booker manager and was given tickets to their December event. Although the cancellation was disappointing, it was not terminal, and it was understood that relationships and ways of working were still being established. The local food producers (including 11 confirmed, 2 probables and 3 possibles agreed by that time) were however disappointed, as they saw potential sales being lost.

Local food producers Gundenham Dairy, Tower Farms and Mighty Muesli – larger-scale producers with more experience of trading systems such as Booker – said they would talk directly to Booker. However, this did not occur for various reasons, due to these businesses working on other activities. In addition, the original Booker staff member that Eat Somerset had been working with closely was promoted in 2006, and moved out of the region.

Working with the Source producer co-op presented its own challenges, since decisions must be made collectively and democratically, and different types of producers have different needs. Some members remained resistant to the idea of working with the mainstream wholesale market, preferring direct relationships with customers in order to market quality local produce. Little progress was therefore made during 2006. Coupled with the logistical challenges identified above, and the loss of key staff at Source to maternity leave, the Source co-op eventually decided to withdraw from the wholesale project altogether. By this time, a new manager was in place at Booker who had other key priorities than local sourcing. We felt that we were back to square one.

Working with Booker – the second attempt

The withdrawal of the Source producer co-op was obviously a disappointment to the Eat Somerset project. However, we also took the opportunity to work with project partners to undertake a review of what had been learned and to draw up a plan of action. We decided to try other methods of working with Booker. The project held two meetings with the new manager of Booker Taunton, John Wilcox, in spring and summer 2007, to re-establish the idea of cooperation and methods of working. John also came to Eat Somerset’s busy and successful Meet the Buyers event in Bath (July 2007) and expressed interested in several products, although Booker did not subsequently follow these up. We have found that the reality is that store targets and key performance indicators do not include incentives to identify or stock local foods. For wholesaler staff, therefore, local foods are seen as an ‘add-on’ that might create some publicity and provide some niche products, but not necessarily as part of core activity.

We persisted, building a good working relationship with John and the Taunton Booker outlet, and providing lists of companies, contacts and products that could supply Booker in Taunton with a range of ambient goods. We chose to focus only on ambient, long shelf-life products that avoided the additional complexity of perishable produce. We pitched these as items to replace or enhance Booker’s current range of “country style” products. This range is aimed primarily at small retailers who want a range of local foods. We went back to those local food producers who had initially expressed interested in this route to market. We presented these products to Booker, who indicated interest in all of the options.

This time, there has been better progress. In January 2008, the Eat Somerset project arranged a series of interviews with the local food producers and Booker at the Taunton store to discuss the logistics of supplying the cash & carry. Eat Somerset attended these interviews, and has also been sent an internal Booker document giving local sourcing guidelines to brief the producers (commercially confidential, so not shared with this case study).

The producers who participated in these interviews were:

  • Robert’s Sauces (Yeovil) Sauces, dressings, mayonnaise
  • Country Cottage Cooking (Exmoor) Jams, preserves, chutneys
  • Nutcombe Chocolates (Minehead) Chocolate
  • Exmoor Cakes (Lynton) Fruit cakes, including catering size
  • Chiman’s Spices (Barnstaple) Indian spices for curries

One other producer was lined up but, due to the relatively short shelf-life of their product, proved not to be suitable for Booker’s requirements.

Success at last!

Following the interviews in January 2008 between Booker and producers we are now happy to report that five producers have a selection of their best-selling products on the shelves in the Taunton Booker cash & carry store. Four of these are from the original interviews and a further producer has been taken on since.
These companies are:

  • Country Cottage Cooking & Robert's Sauces & Radfords Nutcombe Chocolates 
  • Chiman’s spices 
  • Robert’s Sauces 
  • Country Cottage Cooking
  • Radford’s Fine Fudge (June 2008) 

The interviews identified a number of issues that are worth reflecting on. For example, the issue of minimum order quantities and pricing arose. It was difficult to gauge how these products would sell through the cash & carry market, so it was decided that Booker would not initially offer any full contracts. Instead, Booker would spend £1,000 on buying a selection of products to trial, for display in a special area of the store. This meant less of a risk to Booker and all the producers were willing to start this way.

In April 2008, the four producers attended an event at the Booker store in Taunton to show their products to potential customers, provide tasters and to see how their products are displayed. Unfortunately, it was not a particularly busy day in the store and the producers felt that some point-of-sale information would be beneficial to highlight the fact that the produce is local and therefore has a unique selling point. As a result, point-of-sale information will be produced and supplied by the Eat Somerset project to help promote these items in-store.

Booker BannerBooker and the local food companies are monitoring sales and will be able to provide insights into the success of these lines. If these products do sell well it may be possible in the future to introduce more local products. A banner, easily identifying the new local produce, has also been produced.

Eat Somerset’s future work with wholesalers

Eat Somerset has also been seeking opportunities to apply the same approach with other wholesale food businesses, inviting them to attend various promotional events. In 2008, we began work with L&F Jones, a wholesale distribution company supplying the catering trades throughout Somerset and Wiltshire, who attended the project’s Meet the Buyers event in Bristol in April 2008. The company said that they are keen to get some local produce into their cash & carry in Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Specific items are required. L&F Jones have followed up with a number of producers from the event but advise that producers need to consider price when dealing with wholesalers. There are plans to introduce producers of ambient produce to L&F Jones in the same way as Booker by organising individual appointments. Other Booker outlets are also being contacted.

Specific challenges encountered

Working with wholesalers required experiments with a number of different approaches. Determination not to give up proved key to achieving eventual progress. We learned that we could not count on one proposal being ‘the answer’, and needed to make a number of options available. In this case, individual appointments seem to be the easiest way to work with wholesalers, especially if the appointments are organised for them.

This has been an interesting and challenging element to the Eat Somerset project, highlighting a number of issues smaller local producers face when trying to enter the wholesale market. It is a big step and can mean extra expenses such as delivery, bar coding and issues around credit and payments.

What we have learned

  • Providing brokerage and information services between the wholesalers and producers has helped both parties (and the project) to understand and address the needs and requirements on both sides.
  • Having an intermediary setting up meetings and keeping the momentum going ensures that progress can be made. Expecting busy wholesalers and producers to overcome the hurdles is unrealistic.
  • Advising the producers of potential questions the wholesaler may ask helps them to come to the meeting fully prepared.
  • Promoting the new produce is essential at point of sale and elsewhere within the store.

    “Just to let you know that Booker are now trialing 6 of our spice blends.
    Thank you so much for your help with achieving this.”

    Sally Agarwal, Chiman’s Spices

Other Sustain work with Booker

In addition to work with Booker in Somerset, Sustain is also working with Booker in London. Through the London Development Agency funded scheme, Small Grants for Sustainable Food for London, London Food Link is funding the ‘Closer Marketplace’.

Alara Wholefoods is collaborating with Booker Cash and Carry on the feasibility of a new local food distribution scheme. The grant will be used for the first stage, to help the Closer Team to hold a local food marketplace event (21st June 2008) to showcase as many different foods as possible that have been completely produced within a 100-mile radius of Camden, where the market will be held. This is a business to business event and local growers and producers will meet in the marketplace with representatives from catering and restaurant businesses. There will be sampling and a chance to review the costs of local, sustainably produced food compared to standard suppliers, and an opportunity to raise awareness of the range of foods that can be grown and produced locally.


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