Foodservice buyers at 3663 share their wisdom with Fiona McLelland

The core skills might be the same, but retail buyers could learn a thing or two from their counterparts in foodservice. Managing costs, getting the right products to the consumer at the right time and creating a competitive advantage are the skills any buyer needs, says 3663 First for Foodservice frozen, fresh and chilled category controller Paul Willington.
However, he claims, foodservice buyers have stronger supplier relationships and are ahead of the game when it comes to using provenance to full advantage.
“While the core activities are going to be the same, foodservice buying is much more complex,” explains Willington, who spent five years as a senior buyer for frozen and fresh at Iceland and six years as a buyer for fresh meat and poultry at Somerfield.
The foodservice buyer has an extra layer to work through before the product reaches the end consumer. Willington and his team of buyers could be dealing with the fish and chip shop around the corner one day, a school or hospital canteen the next and a chain of high street pubs or upmarket restaurant the day after.
“A product that suits one channel is definitely not going to suit them all and we have to be tuned in to that at all times,” he says. “Retailers obviously have to know their customers inside out to serve their needs. But the business-to-business relationship we have with our customers is fundamentally different.”
Willington says he spends much more time out of the office in meetings nowadays than he did when he was a retail buyer. He is on the road visiting customers every week, but he also has to have bucket-loads of time for his suppliers.
A more in-depth buyer/supplier relationship is vital for foodservice, says Willington. “You put a product on the shelf of a supermarket and you quickly know whether it sells or not and you can make the quick decision to delist that product. You don’t have that luxury in foodservice.
“Our customers have menus to create that can’t be changed easily and if consumers don’t like their meal you will have lost their custom for good. You have to work very hard with the supplier to get the product right first time.”
By spending more time with the supplier, working on a particular product for a particular foodservice outlet, everyone wins.
Jason Dacinger, sales and marketing, catering and logistics director at the Laurel Pub Company, says it is not enough to talk about collaboration: you genuinely have to be collaborative. “If you show them loyalty and commitment, you get far more in return. Not only do you work closely with the supplier to create a great product together, but they will go the extra mile for you if needed.”
For example, the Laurel Pub Company had always shown loyalty to its meat processors, so when the supply chain was hit by the foot-and-mouth crisis, the company was assured of good service in return, explains Dacinger.
Des Bell, director of marketing at 3663, says small and medium-sized suppliers can often find buyers in foodservice more receptive to their new business pitches. “Foodservice is a very good route for these suppliers. Provenance has always been important for our buyers - consumers eating in restaurants are more interested in provenance than when they are buying groceries from the supermarket. When they see ‘local’ on a menu, it adds to their experience - which can add to our margins.”
It is that feelgood factor and extra margin that retailers should also work harder to exploit, says Dacinger.
“A clever buyer in the restaurant world will not look at the cost price; they will look at the difference between cost and selling. Retail buyers used to be all about squeezing out the extra penny and forgetting about margins, but I believe that is starting to change.
“If a product has a great story and integrity, and if the supermarkets can get the message across, the product will work in-store. They already get the basic products right, but if they can learn the lesson of provenance, they can get better margins.”
n The Grocer will be running a conference about foodservice on November 16 in London. Contact Elizabeth Brown on 01293 867612.