THE Asian Trader Conference took place last Wednesday (6) afternoon at the Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel, preceding the gala awards ceremony later that day.

It was the third such occasion, while the evening event marked the 30th anniversary of the awards.

The conferences were born as a response to the clamour of retailers for a forum where they could meet and exchange ideas, and also learn from industry leaders – a mix of the worm’s eye view and the scene from 30,000 feet.


Aditya Solanki

As Aditya Solanki, Asian Media Group’s (AMG) head of digital and India, said in his welcome speech, “It is a major part of our ethos at AMG to pass on learnings from award-winning retailers, and to share best practice across the grocery sector.”

The 2019 event, titled ‘the Art of Convenience’, was nearly twice as large as last year’s, which itself was hailed as a great success. Many more exhibitors had clearly decided it was wise to set out their stalls at the conference, considering the numbers of attendees and the calibre of the speakers.

This year’s keynote speech was delivered by Charles Wilson, now CEO of the Booker Group, the wholesale giant that was incorporated into Tesco in 2018. Wilson is a legend in the grocery world, a man whose analysis and strategic vision for the industry is universally respected.


Charles Wilson

This year’s event focused on the innovation and entrepreneurial skills of traders. Their “art” is vital, set against a background of massive ongoing change in the sector and recessionary fears that might prove true, and are already impacting consumer behaviour.

Wilson promised a Booker perspective on where the sector was headed. A key insight was that retail and catering were growing closer, and this highlighted profound change in the convenience sector, which the panel discussion would later focus on.

He described how the burgeoning foot-to-go trade was providing an economic cushion and increased footfall for stores, with customer satisfaction up by more than two per cent. For Wilson, that metric was the key measure of success. Consolidation of whole sale – Booker and Tesco joining together was a prime example – had resulted in much greater range and value, which in turn uplifted revenue and profits.

“Choice and quality have both improved,” Wilson concluded.

Fears that consolidation in wholesale would turn into a monopoly situation and penalise smaller retailers were largely laid to rest by a panel chaired by host Clive Myrie of the BBC. John Mills, deputy managing director of Unitas, the UK’s largest association of independent wholesalers, discussed with Colin Graves, founder of Costcutter, chairman of the ECB and another industry legend, whether there was a danger in fewer and bigger suppliers.

Both men agreed the increasingly tailored and local distribution networks (localism was last year’s conference theme) meant the space for smaller, independent and niche wholesalers had, in fact, never looked better.

This was despite a situation of consumer insecurity, only partly influenced by Brexit, that was skilfully sketched out by Chris Hayward of researchers Kantar Worldpanel. He demonstrated graphically the way that consumer behaviour was modified by negative expectations – moving to cheaper products and stores for example, as well as seeking out more offers. And the retailers’ response has already been seen in the rising numbers of deals offers available recently, after a period when they had declined.

Hayward stressed the need for retailers to give customers “permission” to visit their stores. Hygiene and in-store displays or “theatre” were becoming important differentiators in an age of increasing consumer expectations and sophistication, he added. Importantly he pointed out the fact that value resided not only in price but also in the quality of the solution provided.

Judging from the other specialist panels, one on vaping and another on food-to-go – the hotspots of the moment – retailers are stepping up to the plate with style and confidence.

Incisively chaired by Myrie, the vape session benefited from the industry expertise of Nick Geens, JTI’s head of reduced risk products, and the retailing flair and imagination of two men who have made vape a major part of their retail offer. Despite the scare stories in the media, all agreed that vape sales were on a steady rise and that the channel would benefit greatly from vape, as would the nation’s lungs.

Food-to-go is transforming the convenience sector as ever more people come to depend on their local shop to feed them. And the evidence shows that retail is responding with aplomb.

Brand director Mike Baker of Budgens was joined by three retailers who have developed mastery in narrowing the gap between catering and retail. Breakfast demand is serviced in shops now, as also lunch, with coffee, heated cabinets and in-store baking alongside meal deals, salads and sandwiches. Evening footfall is being transformed by the development of dessert bars. Clearly, sweet times lie ahead.