Unique in the UK – and probably European – grocery retail sector, Nisa-Today’s has for 26 years pursued the simple aim of enabling independent traders to compete with the big multiple retailers.
Stephen Hunter, Nisa-Today’s IT and logistics director for the past five years, explains that Nisa- Today’s is a pure B2B co-operative, owned by and answerable to its members, and has two main functions. The first is to aggregate volumes for purchasing so that members can remain within reach of the multiples on price, and the second is to provide an effective supply chain and distribution network so that members can match or surpass the multiples in service.
In both cases members, who range from the larger convenience stores to large independent supermarkets, can choose how much or how little of the Nisa-Today’s service to take, and this ‘bottom up’ direction, says Hunter, makes Nisa-Today’s logistics systems requirements different to those of the average multiple store chain.
‘One big difference in our operations is the sheer level of intensity. We may be relatively small in terms of the gross number of cases we move, but we are hugely intensive in terms of the number of orders and the number of drops, which may be for as little as a single case, anywhere from the Orkneys to the Channel Islands. This means we are perpetually looking at ways of improving performance and reducing cost.’
And it has meant a root and branch review of systems. Some very sophisticated technology will be deployed: Retek in the chilled and frozen chain, SCManager in ambient, a bespoke browser-enabled order capture system, and in the two National Distribution Centres (at Stoke and Scunthorpe) Nisa-Today’s has become probably the largest UK user of VoicePick, a computer emulation order-picking product. These developments may represent ‘a quantum move to drive efficiency and reduce costs’ but Hunter emphasises: ‘We have to make intelligent use of systems, not just install them for their own sake. We are only interested in systems that give a payback and make life easier, and they are rare.’
Clearly, Nisa-Today’s and its members can’t hope to match the majors on everything. ‘The multiples, by sheer virtue of size, expertise and resources, can do things we can’t. We’ve got to ensure our members are not severely disadvantaged.’
This means, for example, that Nisa-Today’s isn’t investing in sophisticated software to optimise backloading on its 400 vehicle fleet. ‘We watch, we learn, but we have to know when we can’t go there,’ says Hunter.
An area where Nisa-Today’s can compete is in supplier relations. Says Hunter: ‘Admittedly some suppliers find the open nature of our supply chain a bit frustrating. The fact that our members are making an individual purchasing decision every time they place an order rather than working on a forecast that extends months out. But they see this strange beast growing (at 15 per cent compound over the past few years) and we do provide them with an attractive alternative to dealing always with the big multiples.’
Nisa-Today’s members also provide a vital supply alternative to consumers, by no means all of whom are within the UK Competition Commission’s beloved ‘15 minutes by car from a supermarket’. Of course, members aren’t carrying the 50,000 skus of an edge-of-town superstore but, says Hunter, ‘You can pick up a very wide range of product, and we can be remarkably quick to respond to member and consumer needs, Our members, and we, get much faster feedback on what works and what doesn’t.’
Hunter summarises his approach to logistics as ‘evolution, not revolution. Logistics is all about doing simple things well. Get the foundations right, build slow and steady, and play the long game of continuous improvement. If you come from too far back, with something too complicated, you just won’t make it.’
- Stephen Hunter graduated in Geography from Sheffield University in 1977. A retail management trainee at J Sainsbury, he then decided on a career in distribution and joined Unilever subsidiary SPD as a warehouse supervisor, subsequently moving to NFC where, over 13 years in BRS Northern, he managed a variety of depots and became head of contracts. Subsequently, Hunter spent eight years with Bibby Distribution as divisional director and latterly as operations director and head of IT. Five years ago, he moved to Nisa-Today’s where he is director of IT and logistics.