The driving Force of local retail – Food Force Ireland

Ahead of their annual Trade Show on September 28, trading controller Debra Johnston tells NR about the unstoppable rise of Food Force Ireland.


“We’re very proud of what we have built here,” says Debra Johnston, trading controller at Food Force Ireland (FFI).

Her office in West Bank Road is dotted with smiling pictures of glittering exhibitions and lunches, organised for FFI’s members and suppliers, between whom they have been building lucrative bridges for over 20 years.

“We’re in a very buoyant position,” she said. “We have had many new members join over the last year, and we’re only one of two groups showing significant growth in turnover, according to suppliers.”

Debra is the heart of Food Force Ireland, a cooperative in all but name working on behalf of Northern Irish NISA retailers.

Beginning as an informal association of a few well-known NISA retailers, including Henry Emerson and Jonathon Crawford, its membership now numbers some 72 shop owners, and its aim is unchanged – negotiating the best possible deals between Northern Ireland Nisa members and local suppliers.

Through innovation and no small amount of hard work by Debra, who was appointed in 2001 to drive the association’s ambitions, FFI has developed into a unique organisation.

Food Force Ireland

Debra Johnson

Its confluence of tried and tested retailing brains led to early successes, such as the invention of the Freshdays own-brand in the early 1990s, which generated essential early buying power.

Now, with the added business brawn and relationship-building focus of Debra, FFI has created a muscular yet agile agency that is delivering huge savings for its members and essential business links for its suppliers.

Just weeks remain before its main event of the year, the Food Force Ireland Direct Supply Trade Day. Now preparing for its fifth outing, the show boasts a number of stunning successes.

FFI’s achievements came at a cost, however, sparking a failed takeover attempt by Nisa in February last year. Since then, both Nisa and FFI have built a new relationship, with the former opting to set-up a separate office in Northern Ireland, giving their customers yet more choice on how they operate under the brand.

“We’ve moved on and reached an agreement,” Debra told NR. “It’s a very good working relationship, and we are now working together on local promotional activities and enhancing the offering to our retailers. We are also working with them on the recruitment side of things as well. Every new member of Nisa has the option of working with FFI and local suppliers or going through central billing with Nisa.

“It’s a totally unique approach to wholesale distribution.”

“Food Force Ireland is designed to complement the work of Nisa, who do an amazing job bringing over quality products from GB.”

According to Debra, FFI offers an un-matched level of control to its members. It buys and negotiates, improves prices, puts together strong promotional offerings, and secures long-term trading agreements with local suppliers, building direct and personal links and relationships between producer and retailer along the way.

Debra summarises the dynamic as a triangle of influence between FFI, the retailer, and the supplier, with FFI working hand-in-hand to strengthen those vital relationships.

“We are unique in the way suppliers can influence shop sales, through promotions and ranges. Retailers, meanwhile, can decide what is right for their business and localise their offer and adapt to their market to vary their lines to their customers’ needs,” she said.

foodforce2 from sheridan pennell on Vimeo.

Northern Ireland, especially at her most rural, can be a disparate place in terms of local tastes and preferences, and Debra said she is proud FFI offers members the ability to tailor ranges to suit local needs.

Suppliers too are reaping rewards from their trading with FFI, and the ability to shape sales at store level is again one of the group’s biggest selling points.

“They can get one-off deals in the store to drive the sale of certain lines, and that can be a real benefit for the supplier, the retailer, and ultimately the consumer,” Debra said. “It’s all part of that interconnected relationship.”

Meanwhile, working with FFI means the shop owner can pay suppliers directly at the price agreed through the group, allowing retailers control over the process and suppliers to avoid long payment delays.

Along with its negotiating power, one of FFI’s most attractive benefits is its lucrative performance-driven end-of-year reimbursements. As the FFI is paid for only through a membership fee, its earnings go directly back to its members, rewarding stores for growth through their dealings with the group.

“We gave back £1.5 million last year, generated from our trade agreements with local suppliers,” Debra said. “It’s like a dividend our members receive each year, and a very lucrative one – it’s another way in which we are different from everyone else. Every penny that is put into this office is returned to our members and all our dealings are completely transparent.”

Food Force Ireland

Henry Emerson

And the benefits are paying off for retailers of all sizes, with some 110 stores using FFI as their local buying office.

While large stores benefit from their proportional take from the annual pay out, small shops have found the extra weight behind is essential for making profitable deals with suppliers.

“Convenience stores not only get better pricing, but their owners rarely would have time to meet a supplier, never mind negotiate a good price or see different ranges on offer,” Debra told us. “A big part of what we do is making those deals on their behalf.”

Debra spoke highly of her members, many of which adorned her office walls, and she smiled as she talked about the histories and traditions of shops from Maghera to Belfast.

“We really like to work hard on the relationship side of things,” she said. “We are always in the minds of our suppliers, and part of our main purpose is to maintain those mutually-beneficial relationships between supplier and retailer that can make a big difference.”

It’s through FFI’s annual Trade Show that the seeds of those relationships are tended and blossom. This year the show returns to the Culloden Estate and Spa in Cultra where over 50 suppliers and the maojority of our members will converge to broker deals and, as Debra points out, get a rare glimpse at what next year’s products will look like.

In her former career as a wholesale executive, Debra learned the importance of such exhibitions during a period of trade show globe-trotting, visiting showcases from London to Hong Kong.

“It’s something I always felt was not done enough in Northern Ireland,” she said. “You can get a flying-visit from a rep, but how can you know where the new product fits into your existing range? I decided we would start our own trade show and it’s proved to be a major hit with suppliers and retailers alike.”

After a morning presentation and a lunch for some 250 invited guests, including many of the country’s leading suppliers, the real show begins. The event has become known for its jaw-dropping one-off deals and can see both retailers and producers walk away having completed some major business.

According to Debra, last year’s show specific offer from Tayto saw the crisp brand sell two full containers, while Shloer secured deals on a huge chunk of their Christmas stock.

“We see it as a huge opportunity for us to help all the businesses there,” Debra said.  “All we ask is that they invest their time in the product display and do one off deals on the day, so it becomes a unique opportunity to make amazing deals,” she added.

A list of the deals are given to the shop owners two weeks before the show, giving them time to assess their stock, and maximise their buying opportunities on the day.

“It also provides an important opportunity for retailers to meet suppliers and engage with them,” Debra said. “They can see the latest products and ranges, as well as Christmas lines, with special buy-ins. There is always such a special buzz in the air. It’s so different from other trade shows – instead of the largely empty halls of some trade events, the room is always full of people, and there is a real atmosphere of excitement.”

Some 50 stands will be operating on the day, with expectations high that this year’s show will be one of the best yet.

“It’s now an annual show, and it needs to be,” Debra said. “We need members to be seeing these new products and ranges, and it has become such a successful day for everyone involved.”

It will also be the first year FFI’s recently recruited members will be in attendance, and Debra said she expected the additional numbers would ensure the show continued to gather pace for the future.

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