Leading wholesalers gave suppliers an insight last week into how new technology and digital communication is transforming efficiency and relationships in the independent supply chain.

Speaking at the Federation of Wholesale Distributors’ (FWD) annual conference at the Belfry, West Midlands, Booker chief executive Charles Wilson called the internet “the key to the future of our industry”. He continued: “Alibaba (the business-to-business e-commerce portal) is already bigger than Amazon and Ebay put together. And what is even more exciting is that we are still nearer the beginning than the middle.”

He added that Booker’s online sales exceed £700m a year, and reach 225,000 customer points. Quoting IGD figures, Wilson explained that predictions for the next five years will see growth of only 8% in the supermarket/hypermarket sector, compared with 29% for convenience and 98% for online grocery, signifying an end to the hypermarket era.

Continuing the theme, Simon Hannah of Scottish wholesaler JW Filshill said that technology represented “the biggest opportunity for five generations” for the independent supply channel.

The company offers free epos and web ordering facilities to retailers, and provides business managers with tablet computers to give real-time access to information. Filshill also offers ‘augmented reality’ apps for shoppers at Keystore outlets, enabling them to get information such as recipes via their smartphones, while a voucher programme using mobile phones is in development.

FWD chief executive James Bielby told the audience there was a strong case for extra investment in the channel. He said: “There’s an undiscovered country of potential customers out there for your products. Wholesalers give you access to over a million points of contact with the consumer - a million businesses wanting to sell your products for you.”