Raise your game: if your customers don’t eat then we don’t eat either, Jerry Marwood, managing director of Blakemore Trade Partners (BTP), told the industry.

Suppliers at the Federation of Wholesale Distributors’ annual conference last month quizzed Marwood about the impact of proposed mergers like Nisa and Sainsbury’s.

Independent retailers join a symbol group to retain their independence, he said. Being in a franchise is one step beyond and franchising looks to be becoming bigger.

However, the same thing happened when the supermarkets entered the market in the early years of this century, he said. Standards shot up and independent retailers responded. We just have to do a better job.

While people don’t go out in the morning thinking to themselves they will buy a snack at Spar, they will choose a Spar if it is nearby when they want a snack. However, the challenge is that the supermarkets consistently outscore independent and symbol shops when consumers are asked where they prefer to shop

BTP, which serves just over 1,000 Spar shops – around 300 of which are company owned – sees fresh food as the key driver to success. Its two most recent openings are 50% foodservice.

Marwood motivates his team to recruit and retain happy and profitable retailers.

“Profitable is obvious,” he says. “Profitable means our customers will stay with us. Happy means that they will choose to stay with us. They are two distinct measures of success. Happy is not fluffy…we measure it.”

Retailers could use the same test for their own customers.

The market is changing fast and the rise in e-commerce is a challenge BTP needs to help retailers with, Marwood says. Shoppers who come in store need to be inspired to spend more. Their loyalty needs to be earned and retailers need to drive return visits.

The good news for retailers is that consumers now eat six or seven times a day – not just breakfast, lunch and dinner. So the opportunity to respond to that need is massive, which is a reason why the supermarkets have expanded into convenience as well.

While people don’t go out in the morning thinking to themselves they will buy a snack at Spar, they will choose a Spar if it is nearby when they want a snack. However, the challenge is that the supermarkets consistently outscore independent and symbol shops when consumers are asked where they prefer to shop.

“That frankly is where the challenge/opportunity lies,” says Marwood. “We need to get better because our independent retailers need to exceed customer expectations to get them through the door.”

Think about this. Shoppers assume if you are an independent retailer then you will be worse than Tesco.  You need to get shoppers to think that you are better than Tesco. And it is not about price! It is about experience. Challenge your shop to win in these terms.

Retailers need to get their proposition right, Marwood says. It starts with great stores. Spar sets out to have the best stores in the country and claims in many cases it has been successful.

In those shops it has to sell aspirational products. The best own brand. The best alternative snacks. Products that people aspire to. It has to offer coffee and food to go and value products.

“We also need a point of difference,” says Marwood. “You can’t out-Tesco Tesco.”

Challenge creates great opportunities was one of the themes of the FWD event. At a time when outside commentators get gloomy about the prospects for independent retailers, it is important that the wholesale supply chain is filled with people who understand how local businesses can win.

The challenge for independent retailers is in ensuring they pick the right partners so they can win in the never-ending battle to win a repeat customer.