US supermarket aisle

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My advice to business leaders is to travel to the markets where they want to establish a presence and simply walk the stores

Looking back over the past two years, it is remarkable how quickly companies across the globe adapted to the pandemic to mitigate the impact of widescale disruption. Making fantastic use of video conference services like Zoom and Teams, those same businesses have been able to continue operating as close as possible to usual, despite the obvious challenges.

A lot has been said about the changing face of business communications and the end of in-person meetings. Personally, I don’t think conducting virtual meetings can ever beat talking face to face. Especially for a grocery brand like St Pierre Groupe, which is looking to fast-track its export business.

This is one of the reasons I was first in the queue to get on a plane and fly to the US when the barriers came down. I had a highly rewarding series of meetings with key retail clients and prospective partners, in a way that wouldn’t have been as successful if I had not been there in person. This is particularly true in saturated markets like the grocery sector, where time is truly of the essence. I am convinced the companies that get back out into the world as soon as possible will have a significant commercial advantage over their more cautious competitors.

Visiting our retail partner’s stores, listening to their customers, and discussing their needs is a valuable and immersive experience – one that simply cannot be replicated virtually. Critically, it also becomes a powerful sales tool in the positioning of the brand, so it is tailored to suit each unique customer base.

I have many reasons to travel and visit international partners. At St Pierre Groupe, 50% of our £150m-plus business is in the States, and we are the brand leader in brioche products. My recent trip was a mixture of visiting new stores where our products have been listed, and seeking out new retail distribution partners. It was also about ‘sniffing the air’ and getting an on-the-ground feel for the market.

I started out as chairman of St Pierre Groupe in 2019 when it was predominantly a UK own-label business. Now, in 2022, St Pierre is doing more than half its business in branded products in global territories.

My immediate challenge on arriving was re-evaluating our target markets. Plans for launching in South America and Asia were stripped back so we could focus solely on the States. Why? Because US consumers share similar flavour preferences to those in the UK – but perhaps with a sweeter tooth. In the UK, brioche products have enjoyed considerable growth in the past few years, particularly brioche burger buns. This just added to my confidence that our brioche products would do very well in the US. Only now with an evolved presence can we start to look at other international markets.

The best advice I can give business leaders is to travel to the markets where they want to establish a presence and simply walk the stores, watching consumer shopping patterns in action. Some people are quite surprised that I still do this rather than delegating it to others in the company. For me it is vital, as it helps me establish a real connection with our consumers and therefore ensure we deliver the right products into their hands.

Our focus on travelling to get to know our customers is one of the reasons why the trade values our business. No longer can we simply rely on Zoom and Teams.