Andy Cresswell has been tasked with ushering in a brave new era at Bestway Retail after a tumultuous couple of years for franchisees and staff.

Bestway saved Bargain Booze, Select Convenience, Central Convenience, Wine Rack and Thorougoods from the wreckage after Conviviality collapsed last year. David Robinson, managing director at Conviviality Retail, initially stayed on as managing director at Bestway Retail, but left to join Pets At Home in November. The firm has now turned to retail veteran Cresswell to drive the business forward and he has been given the new title of chief retail officer. 

“I have a different job title to my predecessor and that might sound like a small point, but it says we are going to concentrate on our retail offer,” says Cresswell. “We are getting back to absolutely focusing on retail. We are focusing on not just our consumer needs today, but what the consumers of tomorrow need as well.”

Cresswell began his 30-year retail career at Tesco, before moving to Somerfield, and then spent 15 years working at the Midcounties Co-op. He was managing director at forecourt operator MRH until August 2018, so he has a breadth of experience in the sector, despite not working directly with specialist drinks retailers. 

He joins Bestway at a challenging time for the high street drinks retailing industry. Oddbins has been plunged into administration, along with sister businesses Whittalls Wine Merchants and Wine Cellar, while Hartley’s and Mulberrys owner M&O Trading has fallen into liquidation. The collapse of Conviviality a year ago is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the spectre of Threshers still haunts the high street. 

“The difference with us versus some of those other companies is that we have a much broader range of sites and offers,” says Cresswell. “We are not just purely reliant on one offer – 100% value drinks or 100% premium drinks – and by having a diverse portfolio we can reduce risk.”

He admires the job the Co-op has done in overhauling its offer and catering ranges to local demographics in each store. “It’s done a fabulous job of reinventing itself,” he says. “It’s gone back to the basics of who are its potential customers and how does it make itself really relevant. It has delivered confidence into its product, and it’s been very clear and articulate on where each product should sit. It is getting sales increases as a result of years of hard work.”

The plan for Bestway Retail is now to pursue a similar strategy. “I’ve been talking to all the franchisees and there’s no doubt we need to move a little bit away from one size fits all and have a core theme through our business of what we stand for, who we are and what our brand is, but then diversify that to make sure it fits the estate we are trading,” he says. “Drinks are hugely important to us, but drinks needs in central London versus a forecourt are very different.

“We are going back to basics, asking who are our customers today and who are our customers of tomorrow? We are going to do a significant amount of location analysis. We’re going to understand the groupings of sites we’ve got and then build the offer to suit that.”

Clear understanding

When asked how long this process will take, he says: “I would expect to have a very clearly segmented understanding of our estate within the next three to six months and, alongside that, building the formats we want to use to contribute to that estate. 

“We have come out of a year of critical care. That’s done now. We’ve got some stability. We are building a long-term plan. Equally, we’ve got short-term benefits that we can bring to the business as well. We can make ourselves more robust in the short term by improving some of our processes, increasing engagement with suppliers and getting back to some of the things this business used to be great at, which was around implementing on a consistent basis, being ahead of the market on new product development. Just tidying up and making ourselves more efficient for today. 

“We are enhancing promotion and marketing. You are going to see some of the fun coming back into Bargain Booze in the short term. You are going to see some significant promotional prices in the coming weeks. You are going to
see a bit of fun on social media. You are also going to see a real clarity around our offer, our formats and our customers. We’ve got a plan that’s about the now, and we are building a longer-term plan too.”

The Bestway Retail empire is now vast, sprawling and arguably a little chaotic. “We’ve got a huge, diverse portfolio, stores from 300sq ft to 3,000sq ft. We’ve got high streets, residential areas, forecourts, transient sites, we’ve got a number of different brands,” says Cresswell. 

“We need to understand what our estate is today and what our target estate is and then create a really good offer for each of those different formats. We’ve got Bargain Booze, variations on Bargain Booze, Select Convenience, Wine Rack, the Central Convenience business, some Thorougoods stores as well, so we’ve got a very wide mix of brands, and you add on to that Best One with a huge concentration of brands. We need to ask ourselves, what is our estate and which of those brands are best leveraged where? 

“We’ve got to make sure we actually benefit from the diversity we have rather than it becoming an issue –understanding the people who live around our sites, work around our sites and pass around our sites but don’t come in, and making sure we deliver to their needs.

“You have to understand your locations, who your potential consumer is, then build different formats to make sure you are taking the business forward. We are hugely predominant in alcohol, but we have to realise we have an opportunity to improve our drinks offer in places such as Central Convenience. 

“We also have an opportunity to improve our convenience in some of the more traditional Bargain Booze stores, but it has to be done based on the location, not just on the size of the site.”

The rise of ecommerce, click and collect and the discounters has placed pressure on specialist drinks retailers, while the multiple grocers are as competitive as ever and the Co-op has really got its act together. 

“Why come to a specialist, focused business such as a Wine Rack or a Bargain Booze? There needs to be an extra reason,” says Cresswell. “It needs to be about the range, the market-leading knowledge, the market-leading offers, the focus it has got on its local customer base.

“In some of our heartlands with Bargain Booze that reason is very clear. They like the choice and consistently market-leading offers, and they are starting to like the increase in range and expertise in our field. What we haven’t done enough of is tell people that story. If somebody wants to buy a commodity, we need to make it as easy as possible. But we need to build our business on more than the commodity sale.

“If you look at the multiples, it’s pretty much a cycle of the same promotions over and over. The discounters are doing a great job, but it’s largely non-branded, focused on price. We are really trying to work with our supplier partners to make sure we can give real choice. We have just had Staropramen on at really good value. We must have that base offer that competes with the supermarkets and the discounters, but what we can add to that is a variety of offers that really attract a wider customer base that you can’t get anywhere else. We have reduced the number of lines we promote, but we are still in that sector promoting way more lines than anyone else, and that means there’s way more choice.”

Opportunity to extend

He adds: “We only have a small number of Wine Rack stores, low 20s. They’re performing really well. We believe strongly there’s an opportunity in Wine Rack to extend significantly. We’ve got to build the offer, but it’s got to be consistent. We’ve got to make sure that when our customers walk in they are not disappointed. The brands have got to go back to really standing for something. Delivering this on a consistent basis is something we’ve really got to work on, but with the ability to add local knowledge and local requirements.”

One key issue for the business to resolve is the buying function. One team is buying BWS for Bestway Wholesale at Park Royal and another is buying the same products for Bargain Booze and its sister chains at Crewe. It does not sound viable from a cost perspective, so how will this be resolved?

“To some extent, that’s a work in progress,” says Cresswell. “There is no doubt we can get some synergy benefits and efficiency benefits through utilising us as one organisation. That work is already well underway. 

“If Bestway Wholesale is buying significant product range, and we are buying the same product range, you’ve absolutely got to join that up and do that in the most efficient way for the business. We are also very much specialists in alcohol and we need to make sure we retain that specialism. 

“It may well be that we lead some of those buying areas in retail, and wholesale leads a lot of the others. Ultimately, whoever negotiates those terms with the suppliers will be the best person in our organisation. We are one organisation and we are really keen to make sure we leverage that in the most positive way. That’s evolving already.”

Last year franchisees were offered new terms, including the ability to buy 10% of products from outside the group and 21 days’ credit on purchases, as well as a scheme that allows them to earn up to 4% rebate on their wholesale spend through the group. These terms were an attempt to keep the franchisees on board after a terrible few months under Conviviality’s stewardship, but whether they are affordable in the long-term is another question. “What Bestway did in giving the new rebate loyalty process was hugely brave, but demonstrated a commitment to our franchisees,” says Cresswell.

“I think it was necessary, based on what I’ve heard. We’ve just paid our second quarter out, and it’s a record payment. It’s significantly more than the business used to pay out. Is it affordable? We have every intention of making sure that it is. There’s no doubt we can improve our efficiencies and we need the help of our franchisees for that. At this moment in time, we are absolutely committed to it. We think it’s key to our offer. We are building the business on making sure the franchisees get that sort of benefit from being with us.”

After the problems the retail estate has endured, the independent trade may be unsure about joining the Bargain Booze, Select Convenience or Wine Rack fascias, and it might appear that the group will have to drive growth through company-owned stores instead, but Cresswell is bullish on this front. “We are absolutely focused on growing our franchise business,” he says. “I have been approached by a number of our current franchisees in the past week who want to extend their site numbers.

“We are working with one of our major franchisees at the moment on three new sites that we expect to be announced in the next couple of months. There’s a real appetite with our current franchisees, now that we are rebuilding confidence that we are going to deliver on a consistent basis, to grow their estates. I also believe strongly that there a number of independent retailers out there, whether they are affiliated or unaffiliated, where if we build our model in the way that I am striving for over the next couple of months we will become the best choice.

“We are purely independent. We have the ability to move in different directions as we see fit. That gives us a fleetness of foot we need to utilise better than we have before, but at the same time we’ve got the strength of Bestway behind us. We believe that in the coming months we can become a really attractive proposition to retailers out there who don’t currently work with us, both on the drinks-led format but also on convenience.

“I’ve joined this business because I believe it has real opportunity for growth. A lot in our industry are looking at how they can consolidate and reduce costs. We have to do that and become more focused on our efficiencies but, with the strength and the independence of Bestway behind us and the knowledge we have across our two commercial and trading teams, we believe we can grow our existing estate of franchisees, attract new retail partners and, where the opportunity arises, absolutely look at increasing our company-operated [stores]. 

“But we are focused on all three and franchise growth is absolutely important to us.”