United Wholesale (Scotland) is the leading cash & carry operator north of the border and in the UK’s top 15.

Not bad for a company less than 20 years old.

It operates three depots supplying independent retail and foodservice with almost any product category.

The company runs symbol groups Day-Today and U-Save which now have over 500 stores, providing a one-stop-shop for local communities.

Chris Gallacher, Managing Director at United Wholesale (Scotland) spoke to Wholesale Manager about how the industry has changed in the last two decades and how the industry is coping with the covid-19 outbreak.

Tell us a little of the history of United Wholesale.

United Wholesale Scotland was started by brothers Athif and Asim Sarwar in 2002 with a 22,000 square ft cash & carry warehouse at Maxwell Road, in the Southside of Glasgow. In 2005 Day-Today, our own symbol group was launched with 30 stores opening in one day. In 2007 we opened our current head office at Queenslie, a 170,000sq ft warehouse incorporating a bonded warehouse, distribution centre and cash & depot. This is the year that Asim Sarwar took over as Managing Director.

In 2010, 2 more symbol fascias were launched, Day-Today Express and Day-Today Elite offering retailers many different store formats. By 2011, the total Day-Today estate was over 100 stores.

In 2013 UWS MD, Asim Sarwar was elected as president of Scottish Wholesale Association and UWS were listed as a Top Track 250 company.

In 2014, the original Maxwell Road depot was expanded to over 40,000 square feet, allowing retailers to have a one stop shopping experience. Usave, another fascia solution for independent retailers was launched. By the end of 2014 the total number of symbol stores under Day-Today and Usave was over 300.

In 2015, UWS opened its third branch in Grangemouth, near Falkirk allowing us to expand our reach throughout the central belt. End of 2016, the total number of Day-Today and Usave stores had exceeded 400.

In 2019 Asim Sarwar became Executive Chairman and Chris Gallacher replaced him as MD. Queenslie depot was relaunched as Warehouse of the Future using leading edge digital technology to enhance the engagement and experience of retailers within the depot. By end of 2019 UWS had over 500 Day-Today/USave symbol stores.

You have been in wholesaling for over 20 years. How has the industry changed in that time?

Just recently, we have seen wholesaling move back 20 years with increased footfall and the purchase of grocery. Before the pandemic Wholesale had changed dramatically. Businesses want value for money when they decide what wholesaler to shop with. The demand for ease of shop, digital, online and delivery has seriously changed the face of wholesaling. Businesses want to spend more time in their own business. NMW, and other controllable costs have driven this behaviour. Retailers have had to work smarter to save costs and they won’t have time to do this if they are in the Cash and Carry being held up in queues. I think our new Warehouse of the future shows that it’s not all about giving customers the opportunity of delivery you can give a better experience and speed of service for collect customers as well.

Can you give us some idea of the scale of the business – what geographical area does United cover, how many lines do you supply, how many depots do you have, how many staff, how many vehicles, etc?

In 2019 UWS had a turnover of £234m. We operate out of three cash n carry depots – 30,000sq ft depot M9 in Grangemouth, 40,000 sq ft depot Maxwell Road in Glasgow and a head office 170,000 sq ft depot/distribution/bonded warehouse facility at Queenslie, on the outskirts of Glasgow, with 260 people working across all the depots. We have retail, cash n carry, distribution and marketing/digital teams. We carry approximately 12,000 lines across all categories such as Grocery, Licensed, Impulse, Tobacco, Fresh, Chilled and more. Retailers can travel from all over central Scotland to visit one of the branches and in fact our Maxwell Road depot is one of the busiest cash n carry depots in the country. We operate a delivery service for retailers with 8 vehicles on the road 6 days a week. Our distribution covers the whole of Central Scotland, accounting for some 80% of the Scottish population.

You supply hotels, shops, restaurants, clubs and pubs. Do you anticipate sales to shops to be stronger than sales to the other outlets during the current season of Covid-19?

These are unprecedented times we are living in and I do believe the massive growth C-Stores are seeing at the moment will continue once the pandemic eases. The consumer you can see is already shopping more locally not only due the issue of getting to the mults but because the c-stores have done a brilliant job at servicing the community.

Product categories you supply include grocery and dry goods, wines and spirits, beers, soft drinks, cigarettes, cleaning products and toiletries. Which of those sectors are in growth and which are more challenging? On a positive note all categories are in growth however if you had to rank these Alcohol, Tobacco, Toilet roll and Cleaning products are at the top of the list.

Your depots have remained open during the Covid-19 crisis. Has it been difficult to enforce social distancing in-depot?

Of course with extra footfall it becomes difficult to control. However we have hired an external security company to enforce social distancing, set up government guidelines with in house POS and close our depot early each day to ensure our customers and staff remain safe at all times. And of course we have just recently completed the Bio Fogging in all our depots.

How is the Day-Today symbol group performing? Is membership still growing?

Day-Today group has performed remarkably well over the past 12 months and more so since the threat of coronavirus emerged. We have a comprehensive recruitment and retainment program and we are adding new stores to our estate monthly. It is already the biggest symbol store group in Scotland, while we currently serve the Central Scotland area we have many more stores waiting to join from other regions. We expect store numbers to continue growing at a high rate for the next 12-18 months.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, several of our stores have been leading the way in helping and engaging local communities, receiving worldwide coverage for their dedication, commitment and hard work. They have helped to re-establish the local store as the hub of the community. With this positive media coverage of Day-Today it has driven recruitment numbers even higher.

How digital is United as a business?

UWS offer advanced digital engagement with our suppliers, customers and staff. We have multiple websites with e-commerce capabilities for consumers and retailers. We are able offer our retailers a mobile app. All of our websites utilise data analytics to learn more about our customers allowing us to create personalised targeted promotions.

We engage with multiple social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and have multiple pages which are all updated regularly. We use social media platforms for both consumer and retailer engagement. We utilise messaging services such as WhatsApp and others.

For staff, we operate an intranet site similar to Workplace from Facebook. We have staff working remotely from home using digital tools such as cloud software, video conferencing etc.

We have many large LED Digital Video screens in depot which are all capable of playing 16k HD video quality videos and these screens can all be controlled remotely through a mobile device or computer.

Picking at depot uses latest digital systems and distribution/delivery utilises many digital systems to ensure delivery arrives on time and retailer is able to receive regular real time updates about his delivery through a mobile app.

Technology is constantly changing and UWS are always continuously improving the way we utilise digital tools within our business.

What are your plans to grow the business in 2020?

To continue to work with our Customers and Suppliers ensuring we both win from the partnership. Our focus is to continue to develop our symbol groups whilst giving our customers the best range at the best price with the best service. Doing all of this whilst staying safe, secure and legal is our key objectives to drive our business forward.

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