James Russell Blakemore MD

AF Blakemore’s immediate response to the coronavirus pandemic helped it overcome availability challenges seen by rival wholesalers, according to managing director James Russell.

The senior boss told betterRetailing that Blakemore, which has supply contracts with schools and pub chains, was able to use the logistics network from its foodservice business to help its 800 independent and 300 company-owned Spar stores during lockdown.

“Early on, we saw it was difficult to get core products. Where we had a lot of those in foodservice, it made sense to redeploy them and that’s why there were Spar stores selling 3kg bags of pasta and larger tins of tomatoes.

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“It’s something we typically do in our business anyway. As school businesses quieten down in the summer, business in our retail side grows.

“We already had that additional flexibility with vehicles and delivery drivers to act quickly.”

Russell added that the company is developing its online home delivery service following major success in its centrally owned stores.

Since the government put restrictions in place to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, more people have stayed at home, leading to an increase in home delivery orders from convenience stores.

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“Delivery is important for us on a number of fronts,” Russell said. “We were one of the first retailers in the country to support that space and we partnered with companies such as Snappy Shopper.

“Some of our partners have seen phenomenal success and home delivery is where the convenience offer will continually evolve over the next six months.”

Blakemore’s support has also extended to its high street Spar stores, some of which had to temporarily close during lockdown due to a fall in trade.

Explaining how Blakemore is supporting the reopening of these high street stores following temporary closures, Russell said: “In some of these sites we’re the landlord. Rent relief is important, as are extended credit terms. These initiatives are critical.”

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According to Russell, Blakemore’s response to the pandemic has led to an increase in retailer queries about joining the Spar symbol group.

Russell said: “A lot of retailers have approached us and told us what we’ve been doing doesn’t resonate with what their current supplier is doing.

“Our challenge is not to be opportunistic because we’re all about working with retailers who want to develop their businesses and see a strong role for us in supporting them.

“It’s important we’re not seen as just an alternative source of supply.”

Find out more on our coronavirus information hub for retailers