THE opening of Nurdin & Peacock's (N&P's) Cargo Club warehouse operation in Croydon, Surrey,10 days ago has added to the increasing list of shopping options open to caterers, and has thrown down a challenge to the traditional cash and carry.
Until recently, club warehouses offering a limited number of lines at heavily reduced prices on a membership shopping basis were an unknown quantity.
But the long recession, forcing prices to the top of every agenda, has created changes. After a lengthy battle with Britain's superstores over planning consent, warehouse clubs have won the right to their patch.
Cargo Club contains some 4,000 lines, of which around 1,600 are food. Food items are large packs of leading brands. Most of the members will be professionals such as doctors or teachers, but trade customers will also be able to shop both for business and personal use.
The first warehouse club to open in the UK was Costco, an American warehouse operation which opened its doors in Thurrock, Lakeside, Essex at the end of last year.
Costco is out to target the trade, and predicts that around two-thirds of its turnover will come from this source. It is at this point that the relevance of the caterer comes into play.
With the decline in the independent grocery trade, bulk-buy operations are increasingly looking to other markets, and therefore caterers are viewed as an important target market for these outlets.
Many people still see cash and carries as dark, dank places, epitomising the old adage of pile it high, sell it cheap.
And although few cash and carries would probably care to admit it, the combination of targeting alternative markets coupled with the arrival of Costco has thrown down a challenge which demands a new image.
One player which is at pains to create a more pleasant environment for trade customers is N&P.
Over the past year its Glasgow outlet has served as a pilot for a Trade & Business Warehouse, a concept which is now to be rolled out nationally.
Managing director David Poole (pictured above) says Trade & Business Warehouses could contain up to 30,000 lines, which, as well as food, will include a wide selection of non-food items including office equipment.
The new format will also target caterers in a more direct way. All dedicated catering products will be brought together in one section under the banner of N&P Catering. Catererswill still have to go to different sections to purchase items such as alcohol, chilled or frozen goods, but even so time spent in the store should be considerably reduced.It's no small investment either. Some £10m has been ploughed into converting 44 depots to the new format.
Not surprisingly, Poole dismisses the Costco challenge and appears to be cool about its possible effects. "We've got 30,000 lines at some outlets. Caterers haven't got time to go to different cash and carry operations. They simply won't be able to find everything they want at Costco," he says.
The revised format has already won the approval of local caterers.
"Now that the catering is all in one area there's no walking up and down the aisles looking for goods. It's a great time-saver," says Betty McAllister, proprietor of B&G Snack Bar in Glasgow.
Steve McGarry, manager of the 40-seat restaurant/café Riggends in Airdrie near Glasgow also gives the thumbs up to the new layout. "The one-stop catering section is a real winner. The range and prices are also hard to beat."
Meanwhile, other cash and carries have not been standing still and are focusing, if not on image, at least on price.
Landmark, a buying and marketing umbrella for independent cash and carries, is currently running a series of aggressive price promotions on its own label, Caterers Kitchen.
Like Poole, Landmark senior trading manager for catering Steve Mayes outwardly dismisses the Costco challenge. "They might get some caterers but the range is too limited to build up a large catering base," he says. He does, however, concur that traditional cash and carries need a facelift to enable them to compete against the newcomers.
"The traditional image of the cash and carry is of a dark and cold place. We need to cater for our customers in a more humane way. This gives us more flexibility and if warehouse clubs were to take the country by storm then cash and carries would be better placed to compete," Mayes adds.
Booker Cash & Carry, meanwhile, has pledged not to turn its back on its trade customers despite the Costco challenge.
"We don't underestimate Costco but we don't believe it will offer on a long-term basis what the caterer wants," says Peter White, director of catering development.
White, however, agrees that Costco has been the catalyst to a frenzy of activity among cash and carries generally. For Booker new developments have included Chef''s Larder a specialist foodservice depot in Blackpool, although White will not be drawn on whether this signals a whole new generation of dedicated catering outlets in the company's portfolio. "We're still evaluating Blackpool at the moment," he says.
Whatever the future developments, the seeds have been sown for new trading formats with price key to the outlet chosen by caterers. o