Business as usual – at long last

Nicola Sturgeon

Despite the facemasks, the SGF Annual Conference – back after a year off in 2020 – delivered a familiar mix of thought-provoking speakers, informative breakout sessions and a bustling trade show, all held under the theme of ‘Drawing On Experience’.

by Findlay Stein

So there we were again, back in Glasgow’s Crowne Plaza hotel for the SGF Annual Conference. After a year off in 2020, it was as if nothing had changed. Everything has changed of course, and a minute’s silence at the start of the first day’s presentations to remember those no longer with us because of the pandemic was a fitting and poignant reflection of that.

Held on 16 and 17 September under the theme of ‘Drawing On Experience’, the conference was kicked-off by SGF CEO Pete Cheema who said the pandemic had twisted the UK’s economy into a new shape, in the favour of the convenience sector: “We are more nimble and able to react more swiftly than our larger competitors and that gives us the edge.”

Cheema said trade bodies like SGF had proved their value, by providing a “vital link between government and the industry”.

As the ‘drawing on experience’ theme suggested, much of the conference was dedicated to taking the learnings of the last 18 months and using them to help inform the sector’s strategy over the coming months and years.

Retail redefined

Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling gave an overview of the retail sector since March 2020, or “the month the world changed”, as he put it.

Sparks said retailing was “essentially redefined” with an unprecedented split between essential and non-essential, resulting in panic buying, forced localisation and a massive shift to online sales.

As life gradually returns to normal, Sparks said new patterns were emerging – working from home, for example  – and predicted the changes would benefit some retailers but challenge others.

Symbol speak

The conference heard from several symbol groups and suppliers over the two days. Spar Scotland Sales Director Mike Leonard explained how the business has moved from pandemic to pingdemic and beyond, while Jamie Davison, Business Development Director, Bestway Retail, thanked retailers for the “phenomenal job” during the pandemic. He also revealed plans to bring the Bargain Booze and Wine Rack brands into Costcutter stores, although whether that will include Scotland remains to be seen.

Davison also thanked the recently-retired Jim Amabile for his work with PGMA, the SGF’s buying group supplied by Costcutter, as did Martin Devlin, Amabile’s replacement at PGMA. Devlin recognised the “sterling work” of his predecessor and announced that PGMA membership now offers the opportunity to trade under the Mace fascia.

Smart thinking

Ken Towle, CEO of Nisa, highlighted the importance of business intelligence to the symbol group and touched on the growing use of technology in the sector, in part driven by Covid-19. He also stressed Nisa’s “one size definitely doesn’t fit all” approach to working with its retailer partners.

Kevin Lowe, Head of Store Implementation for Scotmid explained how supply chain challenges last year led to a strengthening of its relationships with its external partners, as the business grew and expanded its network of Scottish suppliers.

Sustainability matters

‘Pandemic’ aside, the word on everyone’s lips now is ‘sustainability’ and Jamie Crummie, co-founder of Too Good To Go, revealed the extent of the world’s excess food production and how his company’s app can boost the environmental credentials of retailers.

As well as being good for the planet, Crummie said the app helped retailers by improving sell-through and cutting waste disposal costs, as well as reaching new customers.

Also tackling sustainability was Matthew Gouldsmith, Channel Director for Route to Market for Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I, who publicised the company’s drive to have all its packaging recyclable by 2025 and to be plastic waste-free five years after that.

On a lighter note, Paul Kitt, National Apex Service Manager for Bobby’s Foods, revealed there actually is a Bob behind Bobby’s Foods. Kitt is National Manager for the van-based supplier’s Apex service, which he described as a “hassle-free way of stocking your shelves”.


Day two of the conference heard from new SGF President Dan Brown, newly blinged-up in the trade body’s chain of office, which had been formally handed over to him at the President’s Welcome Dinner the night before.

Brown had been “truly humbled” to see retailers and suppliers pull together to feed the nation during the worst days of the pandemic but warned that tough times still lay ahead for the sector, from logistical and staffing challenges, price increases and further legislation.

Day two also saw Pete Cheema present industry veteran and former Booker CEO Charles Wilson with an honorary life SGF membership. Cheema praised his “unbelievable dedication and devotion” to the industry. Wilson said he was “touched and humbled” to receive his SGF blazer.

Virtual voices

Not every speaker attended the event in person. A pre-recorded Jenny Blogg, Camelot Retail Director, promoted the lottery operator’s ‘Site, Stock, Sell’ programme and highlighted the Lottery’s healthy play initiatives.

Another virtual presentation came from Harry Walker, Google’s Industry Head for Retail, who highlighted three trends that will be sustained from the pandemic: that digital will be a key part of every grocery mission, either instore or online; the battle for the last mile; and the disruption of retail by localism.

Lockdown surprise

Rupert Lewis, Director of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, revealed how the Covid crisis had hampered the illegal trade, with travel restrictions slashing cross-border duty free shopping.

However, Lewis said criminals had moved more of their operations online as a result and called on the government to give HMRC and Trading Standards more resources, and for it take tougher action against lawbreakers. “We cannot let criminals bounce back from Covid,” he said.

Punishing retailers

In his closing remarks, Pete Cheema praised the agility of local retailers during the pandemic, before warning against the growing threat to convenience retailers from the likes of Amazon, directly calling on the First Minister to address “the larger issue of more legislation focused on punishing physical-based retailers, rather than online retailers”.

Cheema acknowledged the “tragic consequences” of the coronavirus outbreak but said the move to small and local was “the real success story” of the pandemic.

He said the First Minister’s presence demonstrated how valued the sector is at the highest levels of government and ended by giving Nicola Sturgeon a wish list of “targeted interventions” from the Scottish Government.

Responding to Cheema, in a keynote address which praised the actions of Scotland’s local retailers during the pandemic on several occasions, Sturgeon admitted that the lack of a level playing field between online and physical retail was an issue that “does require ever greater attention,” while pointing out the Scottish Government’s very limited powers regarding taxation.

Sturgeon also gave her backing to SGF’s recently-launched campaign to encourage colleagues to report all incidents of retail crime, and praised the Federation’s Healthy Living and Go Local initiatives.

In conclusion, she once again expressed her appreciation for retailers: “Thank you so much for everything you have done over this unprecedented incredibly challenging period. I very much look forward to working with you in the years to come.”

Breakout sessions


Mark Brill, Vice President Sales & Marketing, UK & Ireland, Tomra did a good job of not using his slot as a sales pitch for the Norwegian company’s reverse vending machines, although he did mention its M1 machine, which will comfortably sit in a gondola taking up less than 0.6sq m of floorspace.

Brill instead gave retailers a quick refresher of what the scheme will entail and, drawing on TOMRA’s experience globally, predicted that less than 10% of convenience stores in Scotland will actually install an RVM, saying that stores up to 1,000sq ft could get by without one.

C&C Brands

Martin Docherty and Mhairi Ross, both National Account Managers for Tennent’s parent company C&C Brands, advised retailers to stock the right range for their location, emphasising that a “one size doesn’t fit all” approach is needed.

“Space is key, your fixture needs to work harder, and also you need to rationalise to make sure you have the right packs in your store,” said Ross.

They also stressed the importance of having chilled packs available, stating that 80% of products in the channel are consumed within three hours.


Spencer Robinson, Managing Director of reverse vending machine manufacturer Envipco, like Tomra’s Mark Brill, did an admirable job of not trying to sell his company’s products. In fact, his message to retailers was a blunt one: don’t buy an RVM if you don’t need one.

He too summarised how the Deposit Return Scheme will work and predicted that the scheme – already postponed – won’t start on 1 July next year. Instead, Robinson said a further delay of at least nine months to a year was most likely.

Robinson really set the cat among the pigeons when he casually mentioned that – as the scheme stands – you must collect any drink container sold through home delivery at the point of delivery if the customer wishes, free of charge. A “ticking time bomb,” as Robinson put it, and already happening in Germany, where Amazon use DHL to make the pick-ups.


Camelot haven’t always gone down well with a roomful of retailers for a number of reasons, so the trio of Scott Chisholm, Charlotte Valles and Johnathan Geddes were quick to win the audience over with a bombardment of chocolate coins and free scratchcards in return for hazarding guesses about the value of the lottery.

There was also mention of Camelot’s Site, Stock, Sell initiative to help boost sales and its Retailer Hub, alongside news of upcoming jackpot draws and a new Christmas scratchcard range.

A section on healthy play revealed that some retailers think 16- and 17-year-olds can still legally play the Lottery, and that 56,000 healthy play printouts have been handed to customers this year in Scotland. This sits against a UK total of 300,000 which, given that Scots account for less than 10% of the UK population, seems disturbingly high.

Food Standards Scotland

Stephen Hendry ran through the main points of Natasha’s Law, the new legislation that requires all PPDS (Prepacked for Direct Sale) food to clearly display a full list of ingredients with any allergens highlighted.

It’s an extremely important topic for food-to-go retailers and further guidance is available from both Food Standards Scotland and SGF. The FSS website also offers a menu card tool that’s useful for building recipes, listing ingredients and exporting that list to labelling software.

Even if you don’t sell food-to-go, it’s still a minefield. Take morning rolls, for example. It appears that loose rolls on a tray aren’t covered by the law. However, if the retailer bags rolls up – as many do – then it looks like the bags should be labelled.

Hendry sought to soothe nerves jangled by this complex legislation. He hoped local authorities would take “a supportive approach” and that prosecution would be “the last resort”.


Barr Soft Drinks, Bobby’s Foods, Calbee Group, Camelot, Carabao Energy Drinks, Envipco, eXpresso PLUS, FIFO UK, Golden Casket, GroceryAid, Hancocks, Healthy Living Programme, PayPoint, Reformul8 Partnership, Republic Technologies, Retail Trust, Sentry SIS, Shomoo Milkshakes, Sielaff, Snappy Shopper, Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I, Tennent’s/C&C Brands, Tomra, Vertex, WhyWaste,