The Plight of Wholesalers


By Prof. Michael Winter

I suppose it is hardly surprising that most media attention on food throughout the panic has tended to focus predominantly on the retail and hospitality sectors. After all, that is where millions of people have felt the changes in our food system most keenly. However, at our January Expert Panel meeting, attention was drawn to the plight of wholesalers, especially with regard to the speed with which the rules on lockdown restrictions changed in early January. To be specific, the Government maintained ‘a back to school come what may’ policy until, that is, they suddenly dropped it! Let James Bielby the Chief Executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors take up the story:

‘Before Christmas, the government were adamant schools would stay open on the basis they were low risk. Schools placed orders for food from their wholesale partners in preparation before going off on two weeks’ holiday. Stock was ordered in accordingly by wholesalers ready for shipment in January. … Then the new lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson, taking effect at midnight on 5 January. Schools closed, hospitality largely shut down. Remember, we had Brexit stockpile, Christmas stock which was impossible to sell and now orders placed for and by education. All of that stock suddenly redundant. How much? £12 million of excess stock, all of it created by misinformation and planning failure by the government. Schools sent back orders placed before Christmas. The treasury announced a support package, but of course there was nothing for wholesale.’ [1]

These are hard-hitting words. I am told that the number of pupils in school, due to a broadening of the definition of essential workers, is greater during this lockdown. I telephoned the Norse Group, the largest commercial Local Authority Trading Company in the UK, responsible for supplying many schools, and they assured me that they were still providing schools with food though, of course, at reduced levels.  It is not clear whether the £12m excess stock referred to in the Wholesale News on the 14th January factors in some continuing supply of school or not.  Perhaps someone reading this can provide us with more detail.  These comments are not in any way designed to detract from the central thrust of the wholesalers’ concerns. In any case, this is far from the end of the wholesalers’ complaints.  In addition to the surplus stock issue, there is the issue of free school meal packs ‘which were keeping wholesalers afloat in the absence of any government support’. Criticism of the quality of some of these packs led to another media feeding frenzy:

‘… the government did another U-turn today (14 January) and changed the Department for Education guidance on free school meals and reintroduced the voucher scheme. Government by headline. No strategy or consistency. Just following the news, not leading it. … There’s a lot more excess stock in wholesale now, after schools cancelled the food parcels in their droves. Supply orders have been made by wholesalers for the next few weeks to supply FSM. … And where can the vouchers be redeemed? Supermarkets! That’s the biggest irony of all. The government has today handed wholesale trade directly to the supermarkets – just to chase a headline.’ [2]

 So this is much more than just a story about losers within the food system as a result of pandemic restrictions, it is also about shifts of power and market share within supply chains.  The boundaries between different players in the food chain are being disrupted and blurred. Not all of this churn derives solely from the pandemic. For example, some supermarkets had already moved into the wholesale sector, with so-called hybrid wholesalers, the Co-op and Morrison’s, growing their market share within wholesale from 6.5% in 2018 to 9.2% in 2020:

‘The Co-op provides wholesale services to the fifteen independent regional co-operative societies, as well as to Nisa and Costcutter – in addition to its own retail estate. Meanwhile, Morrison’s supplies Amazon and McColl’s. Lumina Intelligence estimates that both operators will see wholesale turnover increase by around 15% in 2020.’ [3]

And, of course, those more traditional wholesalers supplying retail have seen increased demand whilst those focussing on hospitality and catering for institutions such as schools are really suffering.  Some wholesalers have offset losses by finding new routes to market:

‘JJ Foodservice launched JJ Home in July 2020, signalling the permanent addition of its DTC (Direct to Consumer) service – initially introduced as a stop gap – to the wholesaler’s portfolio. JJ’s has also invested in smaller delivery vans to negotiate tighter London streets and most recently has launched a “Christmas at Home Essentials range” for its consumer customers.  Similarly, Bidfood has formalised its DTC business “Bidfood at Home” and has plans for national roll out. Meanwhile, Brakes has launched its “Food Shop” venture which has been selling direct to consumer since March 2020.’ [4]

The fact that some wholesalers have come up with innovative partial solutions, to the challenges they face is not surprising. It is equally unsurprising that some have been unable to do so, given the heterogeneity of the sector.  The fact that wholesalers are not included in this year’s hospitality support measures suggests the Government does not grasp the diversity of the sector either, nor its importance in a system that, despite initial fears, has largely maintained food supplies during the pandemic. It is hard to avoid a sense that a rather crude politics is at play here. Most food wholesalers are not household names in the way that major retailers and hospitality brands are and their pleas do not easily find ready media coverage. And if this appears to be a criticism only of government let me finish by turning the spotlight on my own sector of academia.  The Web of Science is one of the leading on-line bibliographic indexes covering academic publications from across the world. I did a search for all publications with the words ‘food’ and ‘wholesale’ in the title over the last twenty years. The search came up with 27 ‘hits’. Substituting ‘retail’ for ‘wholesale’ gave 842 publications. For not the first time in this project I find myself wondering why so much public, policy and scientific attention is given to food production (farming) and to food retail (consumption), but so very little to the complex system that ties these two together.


[1] Bielby: ‘Government by headline’ twists the knife in wholesalers’ backs – FWD

[2] ibid

[3] Growth In Wholesale Sector Slows As Pandemic Leads To Polarisation And Change | KamCity

[4] ibid

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