Back at the branch

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Charles Wilson is, in the nicest possible way, accosting customers as they wheel trolleys around a branch of Booker. "Sorry to interrupt you," he...

Charles Wilson is, in the nicest possible way, accosting customers as they wheel trolleys around a branch of Booker. "Sorry to interrupt you," he says, "What have you bought? What type of business do you run? Did you find what you were looking for today? Was there anything else you wanted?"

The questions go to the heart of the new impetus Mr Wilson has put behind re-establishing the cash & carry group's standing with its core customer base since taking up the role of chief executive last year.

When that move was announced, the energy generated by the raising of eyebrows in the City would have easily powered a wind farm for several weeks. Mr Wilson had long been associated with retail renaissance man Stuart Rose, and was a key member of the turnaround team led by Mr Rose at Argos, fashion group Arcadia, and most recently high street icon Marks & Spencer.

The announcement that Mr Wilson was leaving M&S for a Booker just a year after he was parachuted in with Mr Rose caused a number of analysts and city scribblers to question why a core member of the team was moving on.

However, what those observers had failed to factor in was Mr Wilson's history with Booker. His association with Mr Rose had included a stint at the company between 1998 and 2001.

"We'd put in the groundwork at M&S, and the results that the company has announced since then more than demonstrate that," says Mr Wilson. "I liked this business, and I've always relished a challenge."

A challenge was undoubtedly what he had on his hands. He believes Booker had been neglected during its stint as part of the Big Food Group. Not only had sales been on a downward trend, but any cash which was generated by the business was spent on the underperforming Iceland retail chain rather than on much-needed investment in Booker's own outlets.

Using his initiatives

That changed when Icelandic retail investor Baugur acquired Big Food, and separated its component parts. That left Booker back in control of its own destiny. After an inevitable inward-looking period, which included a head office restructuring, Mr Wilson has "gone public" with a series of initiatives aimed at getting customers back into branches.

Those customers include around 40,000 pubs, the biggest single group other than independent retailers. Since the start of the year, a series of new initiatives have been introduced which aim to make it easier for pubs to put Booker at the head of their shopping list.

This has included an "every day low prices" approach on more than 300 food and drink products, including core pub lines such as Coke bag in box for dispense and Tilda rice. There are also more promotions on lines likely to be bought by pubs, and Booker now takes credit cards.

Sound business

Mr Wilson smiles at the suggestion that he is applying some of the disciplines learnt in his retail experience to the cash & carry market, often seen as something of a Cinderella in comparison to the high street.

"Most of what we're doing is just sound business," he insists. "For example, customers were telling us they wanted to be able to pay by credit card and now they can."

Similarly, the launch of a catalogue which enables customers to order additional lines online or by phone recognises that each business is individual.

"Diabetic jam is a classic example," says Mr Wilson. "It probably doesn't sell enough to be stocked on the shelf, but if a pub or hotel has regular diabetic customers, they can order it to pick up at the branch."

One of the biggest changes has been a greatly increased fresh produce range. Branded "Market Fresh," Booker's fruit and veg is now up to 30 per cent cheaper, and all sourced through local markets. "We feel that giving independent businesses access to local produce at competitive prices is an area where we can really add value," says Mr Wilson.

Signs prominently displayed around the fresh produce area encourage customers to ask for anything they can't find, and special orders can be delivered to branches within 24 hours.

"The relationship with the branch is very important," he continues. "That's where customers need to know they can get the advice and support they need." Product availability is at the heart of this relationship, and while this continues to improve "we recognise that we can still do better."

He sums up the key priorities for Booker as improving "choice, price and service. We're making progress in all three areas, and there's more to come."

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