Caterers lead the way in recovery

Booker’s sales to caterers may be far smaller than its sales to retailers, but with 258,000 catering customers spending pound;850m in the last year it is still one of the biggest players in the sector. And while the decline in sales to retailers has proved harder to arrest, its latest results for the year to March 28 show sales to caterers grew by 2.2%.

Presenting the annual results chief executive Charles Wilson and director of catering development Ron Hickey said a range of initiatives were responsible for the increasing sales to caterers. One change that is clearly winning favour with catering customers is the conversion of branches to the Extra format.

The new format is a low cost conversion consisting of new orange livery and enhanced lighting to improve the environment in the depots, together with improved ranging. By the end of May, 34 conversions had been completed, with an additional five in progress and a further 25 planned up to March 2009. Wilson said non tobacco sales in the Extra depots were 5% ahead of the performance in depots that had not been converted, and that the conversions paid for themselves in 12 months. He also revealed that 56% of the profit growth in the Extra depots was from catering customers.

As part of its ‘Choice up’ policy, Booker has also introduced the Booker Basics range for caterers, comprising core ingredients and disposables at permanently low prices. Hickey said sales of the range had reached pound;500,000 a week and were rising.

Last year Booker also introduced kegs to provide publicans with a top-up service and sales have now grown to 4,000 a week. Hickey said keeping prices low was another important aspect of Booker’s strategy and that a price comparison by Booker with two leading foodservice wholesalers showed its prices were 48% lower.

On vegetables and meat Booker aims to help caterers by offering season-long price guarantees so that caterers can set their prices with confidence. Booker also offers four-weekly special promotions for licensees and caterers across its catering range and introduces short-term ‘Surprise’ promotions.

Improving service is the third tenet of Booker’s strategy and Hickey said there had been a number of enhancements in the last year. These included an investment of pound;3.5m to upgrade the company’s fleet of delivery vans so they can all provide a multi-temperature service. In addition, Booker has removed its 1% fee for credit card purchases, increased its delivery service from five days a week to seven and can also provide next day delivery.

Extra staff have been recruited to enhance the service provided to caterers. Booker’s team of catering development managers, who visit caterers to provide advice on how to improve their businesses, has been increased to 50 people. In depot it now has 200 qualified catering butchers who understand the requirements of catering customers.

This summer a range of other initiatives are planned which are aimed at different catering establishments.

For outlets which want to provide food with the minimum of equipment and expertise. Booker is publishing ‘Quick Easy’, a booklet which advises how to provide a range of food using a microwave. Hickey said the booklet was targeted at pubs who were not currently providing a hot food offer, but wanted to get involved in this lucrative part of the market.

For the top end of the catering spectrum, Booker is building on its long-standing relationship with Gordon Ramsey with a new book of recipes from the celebrity chef, including wine recommendations to accompany each dish.

And a simple idea to generate extra sales for licensed premises is a summer drinks menu, intended to be placed on the bar and tables. Hickey said it used standard optic products with a twist to freshen up bars’ drinks offer, and early feedback suggested it was generating extra business for customers.

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