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The Bury-based food wholesaler needed to change direction overnight when 95 per cent of its customers had to close because of lockdown restrictions. With support from the Hub’s Digital Innovation experts, it is “now in a far better position”.

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"GC Business Growth Hub have given us access to programmes we would never have heard of. Even our management team has been able to access training and webinars, and together this is not only making us more efficient as a business, reach new customers and market ourselves, but it’s given the business a new and exciting future." Hannah Barlow

Dunsters Farm is a third-generation family wholesale business which started life in 1963 as a milk round. It supplies a range of fresh and chilled food and drinks to customers across the North. Based in Bury, it is led by siblings Hannah Barlow (Managing Director) and Tom Mathew (Commercial Director).

Hannah Barlow

Prior to COVID-19, at least 70 per cent of its customers were in the education and health sectors. Now, using ecommerce to reach new customers, Dunsters is selling directly to the public for the first time.

Hannah (pictured below) tells us how digital transformation has helped the company pivot from a traditional distributor to the online space.


COVID: We went from full steam ahead to zero overnight

We had been growing steadily over recent years and we're on track for our record month in March 2020, after winning new contracts within the education sector and the NHS.

We were recruiting new staff, we were growing the business, extending our range and we were ready for some new projects at the end of this year.

Instead, we went from full steam ahead to zero overnight because 95 per cent of our customers had to close because of lockdown restrictions.

At least 70 per cent of our customer base is in education, but high schools and colleges close to the majority of students. The rest of our customer base is made up of smaller wholesalers, cafes, farm shops, leisure centres and hotels, which also closed.

We had been thinking about our digital offering and we're looking to move some of our processes online. Initially, we wanted to build an eCommerce website to sell to smaller outlets such as shops, cafes, health food stores and to be able to do it on a national basis. We’re very much a northern business and our vehicles only go as far as Carlisle and Birmingham. In order for us to extend our reach, we were looking at using couriers.

That’s when we started to talk to GC Business Growth Hub, as we needed help with the right digital approach to our offering. As we were having those discussions lockdown happened and we had to pivot the business immediately, but also change direction.

We realised quickly during those initial weeks of lockdown that people were struggling to get hold of necessities such as pasta, toilet rolls and flour, yet we had a warehouse full of them. We had all these essential items, but it wasn’t in the right place for people to buy, as they didn’t know about us because we didn’t supply them directly.

So, we decided to set up a Dunsters Farm Shop for the local community, utilising local suppliers, and for the first time, we started selling directly to the public.


We had never done anything like this

There was a massive demand from people, as they wanted to buy locally because they couldn’t go anywhere else, and the queues at the supermarkets were too long for some families. We provided an ideal solution where customers could order online and collect from our warehouse.

We provided home deliveries for customers who were self-isolating or shielding and had measures in place for contactless payment.

The Hub advised us on the best platform to use for the site. We looked at whether to go down the Shopify route or Magento. In the end, we used a WordPress platform for eCommerce and we plan to migrate to a Magento platform in the future.

Through Chris Murphy, the Hub’s Senior Business Advisor for Digital Innovation, we had a brilliant sounding board.

We had never done anything like this, so having someone to talk to who had the experience, who had the contacts and who had worked with other people who have had a similar journey, was just what we needed.

Importantly, Chris and his team had the time for us, and they were there to listen. The team kept in contact with us regularly and were happy to answer any questions. While we were trying to save our business, the Hub did the research for us and actively sent us information even helping us with supporting our staff when they were furloughed. It took much of the stress out and was a massive help.

The Hub helped us with our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system as well as providing digital processes mapping support.

We were surprised how quickly the eCommerce shop escalated and with the Hub’s help, we successfully marketed the new service through social media.  We had a good story to tell and we got more coverage in the local press in six weeks than we did in 60 years.


Through technology, we are future-proofing our business

We are now working with Chris on a collaboration project with a university. We’ve already pivoted the business, but the past six months have made us realise how important tech is to help us keep changing to future proof the business – while not losing sight of what we do, as well as working with our suppliers and our customers.

We are also working on a management KTP (Knowledge Transfer Partnership) through the Hub to streamline our processes.

GC Business Growth Hub has given us access to programmes we would never have heard of. Even our management team has been able to access training and webinars, and together this is not only making us more efficient as a business, reach new customers and market ourselves, but it’s given the business a new and exciting future.

We’ve had to restructure the business and there were some redundancies but, ultimately, through investment in tech we’ve created new roles, including one in marketing, and we’re in the process of hiring an IT apprenticeship.

Last year our turnover was £12m and we were looking to grow this to £15m before COVID hit. We’re now expecting £9m to £10m. There is going to be a loss, but we have placed the business in a far better position than six months ago.


If you’re an SME in Greater Manchester that has the ambition, capacity and drive to grow, the Hub’s specialist Digital Innovation Advisors are here for you. They’ll help you identify the key things needed to become digitally innovative and guide you on your digital transformation journey.



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