The New Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) Mark White Answers Our Questions
Mark White officially took over the role of Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) on the 31st October 2020. He succeeded Christine Tacon after acting as Deputy Groceries Code Adjudicator prior to assuming the role.
Mark was kind enough to answer our questions, sharing his early experiences and what he aims to achieve going forward.
MBM: What things have shocked/surprised you in the first 2 months of taking on this role?
Mark White: I acted as Christine Tacon’s deputy for three months until formally taking up my role. During this time I held meetings and discussions with the Code Compliance Officers, CEOs and Audit Chairs of the retailers. In addition, I have many years’ experience in industries selling products and services in highly competitive, price-sensitive markets that have prepared me for the role.
As a result, there haven’t been any real surprises or shocks. But what has been good to see confirmed is how well the Code is embedded into the sector and the real progress it has achieved.
A standout achievement has been the high level of communication between suppliers and retailers that GSCOP has helped to foster. It has definitely demonstrated its worth during the Covid-19 pandemic during which all parts of the sector have worked well together to ensure groceries are reaching supermarket shelves for consumers.
It is important to keep raising awareness of the importance of the Code to suppliers. I have refreshed the GCA Code Confident Campaign with a new message that suppliers know it, use it and grow their business. I want suppliers to use it wisely such as when a retailer makes a proposal that is clearly contrary to the Code. If this does not happen, I urge suppliers or their trade association to let me know.
MBM: Amazon – How much are they in your sights?
Mark White: I do hear from suppliers wanting Amazon to be regulated under the Groceries Supply Code of Practice but that decision is not for the Groceries Code Adjudicator. It is a decision for the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) which is responsible for designating retailers.
Each year the CMA reviews publicly-available information to determine whether any existing retailers or new market entrants has or will soon have a UK annual turnover of more than £1 billion in the retail supply of groceries. Those above this threshold are formally designated as “large retailers” under the Code.
In recent years the CMA has added three retailers to the original list of ten. My advice to suppliers who have information showing that Amazon meets the £1 billion threshold in groceries is to take that evidence to the CMA.
MBM: Christine had a rolling list of priorities, e.g. complaints – do you have a list? If yes, what is on it?
Mark White: One of my priorities is to ensure that the Groceries Code Adjudicator is fully focused on the changing relationships between retailers and suppliers as the large retailers adapt to the conditions created by Covid-19 and Brexit. Constructive relationships between suppliers and retailers are crucial but so is the relationship I have with both sides.
The sector is clearly changing in response to the pressures caused by the virus and there have been some positives such as more favourable payment terms for smaller suppliers. However, there is some evidence that the pandemic has impacted the number of promotions, so retailers are looking carefully at their ranges, their routes to market and their pricing proposition to consumers. Strategic plans for the next 3-5 years have been brought forward – just look at the growth in online and moves towards EDLP by some retailers.
With the market changing there is significant tension on pricing. This tension may also heighten as the retailers look forward to how they will achieve growth in the next year if for example hospitality returns as the pandemic eases.
As a result, it is important my focus adapts to these new challenges. I will be watching how issues such as funding the cost of a promotion may give way to others like delays in payment, including the way audits are undertaken and how range reviews are conducted. I will also be keeping notice of variations in supply agreements and delisting – both significant issues for producers – high on my radar during the coming months.
MBM: What are your top 3 ‘to do’s?
Mark White: It is very important to me to raise awareness among suppliers about how the Code can help their business. I am really keen to get out and about as soon as possible to meet suppliers face-to-face but in the meantime, I have reissued the Code Confident pack with a new message: Know it, Use it, Grow Your Business. I am also taking every opportunity to have virtual meetings with all those with an interest in the groceries supply chain.
Another major focus has been to create an environment in which suppliers feel totally confident to raise issues with me or the Code Compliance Officers. Soon after I was appointed, I discussed this with the CCOs and they have all told me that their practice has been to maintain confidentiality in discussions with suppliers. However, in such an important area where concerns still persist, it is one thing to say something and another to have it in writing. The CCOs have now formally confirmed to me that they will treat any discussions with suppliers in the strictest of confidence and it will be up to the supplier to determine whether they can disclose any details about the subject matter of their Code-related discussion with their designated retailer.
I have also recently launched a third-party confidential platform for suppliers to report behaviour by a designated retailer that they believe to be in breach of the Code. They can provide information anonymously through ‘Tell the GCA’ while choosing to continue to correspond with me via a secure post box that protects their identity. This is not intended as a replacement for contacting me directly if that is what suppliers wish. But for those who still harbour concern about confidentiality, I want to be able to demonstrate they can protect their identities if they bring me information.
Code compliance needs to be embedded in everything the designated retailers do. I am driving forward the whole-house approach to compliance and expanding on previous discussions, looking at the tone from the top of the retailers and further exploring training, including the link between training, remuneration and assurance.
MBM: What are the main concerns that suppliers are bringing to your door?
Mark White: I will be able to answer this question more specifically when I see the results of the 2021 GCA survey. I launched the survey in January earlier than normal because I wanted to get a clear understanding of supplier concerns as soon as possible. So far, I am very pleased because we have already had a strong response but the more suppliers who take part the better. The survey is currently open until 21st February at www.Yougov.com/gca and I would urge your readers who are suppliers to take the few minutes it needs to complete. The survey response will shape the issues that I focus on and so in a very real sense suppliers’ replies can help their business.
This year the survey has two innovations. First, I would like to hear from suppliers about examples of where they think the designated retailers are doing a good job. These will help me highlight success and share good practice. Second, after the main survey has closed, I am asking YouGov to carry out some detailed interviews with suppliers on particular issues arising from the findings. If any supplier is interested in taking part in these interviews, please provide contact details at the end of the survey. As with survey responses, any information gathered from these follow-up interviews will be treated with complete confidence.
My door is always open to suppliers, but while we are under Covid restrictions it has been difficult to meet suppliers directly, so I have been looking for other opportunities. I have already held my first supplier webinar which I found a very valuable event and I am planning more in the coming months. Look out for details on the GCA website.