Caught in the web

Unlike the volatility inherent in the stock market, commodity prices or indeed the price of meat itself, the market for butchers’ sundries is one that does not tend to fluctuate wildly over the course of the year. Although trends do come and go, there is no doubt that butchers need a steady supply of ancillary products to run their businesses, and that these incorporate everything from twine to sausage casings, hygiene products and knives to pre-packed and display trays.

However, given the prevailing mood of austerity, it seems that sundries companies are working harder than ever to make sure that these are readily available for butchers, and at the right price. 

As the credit crunch has bitten deeper and butchers have had to work harder to offer price-conscious consumers great products at good value, the sundries market has seen some subtle shifts and innovations during the course of the last few years. Despite the tough economic climate, many of these developments are making it easier for butchers to operate by making ordering and delivery easier and more flexible, and by delivering better deals and anticipating some of the trends that are emerging on the high street.

John O’Hara, managing director of Smithfield Casings & Sundries, says the prevailing trend over the last few years has not been so much that butchers are needing or ordering different products, but more about how they are ordering it. “Whereas, five years ago, butchers kept a spare stock of most sundries, many are now getting just enough to get through until the next delivery, which reduces the amount of cash they have tied up in stock,” he says. This is generally not a problem, he adds. “The only time they can get caught out is if there is an unexpected rush, such as unforeseen weather conditions. But butchers are usually leagues ahead of the supermarkets when it comes to reaction times and versatility,” he adds.

Stephanie Revill of Trunet agrees the markets butchers work in can be relatively irrational and, as a result, they have to be adaptable, which has introduced a tendency to play it safe. “Butchers have become more cautious about buying and about how much stock they hold,” she says. “They find it hard to predict their sales, so they tend to buy little and often.”

As a result, suppliers have to react faster to orders, and be prepared for a quick turnaround on delivery, so that they can fulfil butchers’ demands. It is no surprise that one of the biggest developments in recent years has been the explosion of butchers ordering sundries via the internet. Until recently, sundries companies relied predominantly on telephone sales and van sales, but this growth in online sales has been invaluable for both butchers and suppliers, as it allows them greater flexibility; some suppliers have reported a distinctive boost in sales after 5pm since moving online, as butchers increasingly attend to administration and restocking after the shop has closed for the day. This obviously suits suppliers, as they can effectively operate 24/7, and also plan deliveries more effectively.

Although its van sales have been successful, particularly in the Midlands area, Trunet has seen its web sales more than triple in the last year, now accounting for roughly half of its overall total. So successful has the internet been, that the company launched a new website in October 2011, which Revill says has proved popular, prompting many butchers to taking the plunge and switching to online ordering. 

Revill argues that internet shopping is particularly useful, as it allows butchers to find better deals as they can compare prices between suppliers more easily.

Glasgow-based company Scobies & Junor, whose main route to market is its online portal, Scobies Direct, also reported a good year. “Butchers like the fact they can re-order as much as they like — as long as it’s over £50, they don’t pay carriage, so it helps on storage space and also with cash flow,” says a Scobies spokesman. 

Social media marketing

As well as straightforward internet sales, Trunet also uses Facebook as a marketing tool, which seamlessly blends into tech-savvy butchers’ social networking sites, along with their more social updates. The growth of social networking, such as Facebook and Twitter, can alert butchers to offers and promotions on sundries, and can help them see where they can get the best deals. Increasingly, newsletters, Twitter and Facebook have become as much part of the high street butchers’ arsenal as A-boards and local advertising once were in reaching out to their local communities, so it stands to reason that suppliers are following suit.  

As Revill notes: “It’s a great way to advertise and also to stay in contact with your customers. Social networking is definitely the place to be.”

Scobies feels the way butchers have taken to these new outlets has great potential and it has already developed a big Twitter community. This has been useful in promoting sales, extending the brand and reaching new customers. With more butchers linking together, and reaching out to their customers, they are finding their suppliers are increasingly coming to meet them. Twitter has provided a great new forum for useful and informal interaction. “It’s great to see what people in the industry are doing too,” Scobies adds.

A greater willingness to embrace new technology has seen some ground-breaking development for sundries companies. Scobies brought out a smartphone app last year, which provides butchers with on-the-go access and the ability to order and reorder quickly and easily without being tied to a computer desktop.

Scobies explains the appeal of the app revolution: “We like to use IT a lot to run our business, so when the iPad came out, we thought it would have a role to play — both for our internal systems and for our customers.” The team has therefore adopted the technology within its own sales and warehouse teams — for example the forklift trucks in the warehouse have iPads attached to them, which has helped to streamline the ordering and selection process. The app makes repeat ordering quicker, as orders can be tracked with ease.

Scobies says the app allows greater freedom and flexibility for its customers than conventional ordering. “Butchers have a different platform they can order from, either from the iPhone or the iPad, or from an android tablet or phone,” the spokesman says.  


As well as new technology allowing suppliers to offer butchers more convenient business models and ways of communicating, sundries firms are seeing developments that are helping steer them towards practical solutions for butchers’ needs.  Scobies points out that butchers are always looking for new ideas. “If we’ve got a good product then we’ll find that we’ll get a good uptake on it,” says the company spokesman.

One area that has seen an explosion in recent years, is investment in the deli counters and food-on-the-go, with butchers not only spending money on their counters, but also on their displays. Butchers are looking for different solutions in terms of the range of tubs, garnish trays, pots and lids.

O’Hara says pre-pack products, such as trays, film and labels, have been steadily increasing in popularity as butchers react to the ways people shop and seek to tempt customers away from the supermarkets. He says: “Not all younger customers are comfortable asking questions over the counter, but they want the quality and variety that butchers can offer over the supermarkets. Having products in a multi-deck display offers the products in a format that is familiar to consumers and the butcher can label packs with special offers like ‘£2.99 each’ or ‘take any two for £5’ to increase spend per head.” 

Products such as absorbent trays are also becoming more popular than ever. as they absorb meat juices without the need for unsightly pads, while products such as meat-saver paper in display cabinets can help reduce wastage and increase visual appeal. O’Hara notes that the introduction of new colours means display cabinets can look as good as pre-pack displays. Vac pouches are also increasingly used, as they prolong the life of products both in storage and on the display counter. O’Hara also points out they can also be used to avoid contamination — for example while dry-curing bacon, a technique which has grown in popularity over the last couple of years.

JB Packaging has seen rising demand for expanded polystyrene (EPS) boxes, ice packs and waxed cardboard boxes, as butchers move to online ordering and sales. Marketing manager Janet Adams says: “We have seen a dramatic increase in online selling and home delivery services as consumers move to buying online to fit more with their busy lifestyles. Vac bags, foam liners, and deluxe expanded polypropylene boxes have also done well.” 

Despite the constant threat of ‘plastic bag taxes’ being introduced — the Welsh Executive has already introduced legislation and Northern Ireland is due to follow in 2013, while Scotland has also mooted the idea — polythene bags continue to have a high turnover, largely due to their relatively cheap cost and usefulness. But there has been a movement towards both biodegradable packaging and better-quality ‘bags for life’ products, as increasing numbers of butchers are investing in higher-cost, higher-quality branded bags made of jute, cotton, canvas and poly-fabrics. These are not only more environmentally friendly, but also help to raise the profile of the butcher and extend the marketing opportunity.   

Roger Austin of William Jones Packaging says this is a noticeable trend and one that the company often sees when times are tough. “Butchers have a tremendous battle to get people into their shops rather than into a supermarket, so they tend to trade up,” he explains. “We’re offering more and more expensive products, and butchers seem to like them.” 

O’Hara points out that butchers are rightly proud of their shops and are aware that having them spick and span is the first step to getting customers in through the door. Hygiene and cleaning products are always key, and HACCP products have helped to drive sales, with colour-coded equipment, such as cutting boards and cloths, selling particularly well. 

Although times on the high street have been tough over the past 12 months, sundries companies are working to become more flexible, increasing the choice of products on offer, as well as the ways they interact with their customers. By embracing new technology, they have made ordering, communication and delivery easier, helping butchers to retain their competitive edge and concentrate on offering quality products to their customers.

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