How do you grow in a recession? That was one of the interesting topics discussed at the recent British Confectioners’ Association meeting in Gloucester.

Most of the 60 members are retail bakers as well as confectioners and the word ’grow’ is certainly a different angle to ’cope’ - a word we hear far more often at the moment. All the members run retail shops and some provide wholesale locally and even nationally.

Russell Jenkins of Llanelli-based Jenkins Bakery, which has 24 shops, revealed that he is a strong advocate of using mystery shoppers to keep standards up in shops and increase takings. The structured programme involves three visits a year to the 24 shops. The visits take into account: window displays, clean counters, in-shop displays and uniforms. In addition, shop staff have to make eye contact, smile, offer additional products and point out any special offers.

Since its inception, average scores have risen from 85% to 91% across the chain and customer spend has increased 18% from £2.14 to £2.52. A £25 bonus is given to staff if the shop scores 90% or over. Every shop manager receives a full report and action points. The forms are also used for formal appraisals and shop audits. Each visit costs £41 and is described as ’well worth it’. Bakers were also advised to offer a ’bread of the week’ and ’sandwich of the week’ - neither reduced.

The next speaker at the meeting - Robert Ditty of Ditty’s Home Bakery in Northern Ireland - talked about the value of communicating really well with staff, and the importance of detailed attention to the product, which had helped him secure a national order with Waitrose. With regard to his retail business, he said: "Look at what you serve and how you serve it. Shoppers will pay more for quality food in a recession. But they look for total cost, not cost per item."

The third speaker, Robin Jones of The Village Bakery (Coedpoeth), who runs a retail and wholesale business, suggested: "Consolidate. You cannot grow if your foundations are not good. Are you trying to grow bottom line or turnover? The bottom line must come first and turnover will follow.

"Also, try to reduce credit terms from 28 days to seven. Customers who really value you will do their best to help."

Other ideas included improving provenance by sourcing locally - an initiative that had helped him pick up an order from Marks & Spencer. "Make environmental awareness a ’plus’ point of your business. And hire a local PR agency to keep your name out there," he said. But he also advised: "Resist pressure on margins," giving an example of how he recently walked away from a £2m contract.

Members also heard from Commercial Utility Brokers (CUB) of March, near Peterborough. They gave examples of how they had saved bakers significant costs on their utility bills - including energy, water, drainage and mobile communications. CUB is happy to quote and Louis Fairfax can be contacted on 01354 606845.

Host for the meeting in Gloucester was Neville Morse, MD of Janes Pantry, with 10 shops around Gloucester. Two of the well-stocked shops with cafés were visited. Three speakers from Janes outlined how the business had grown from a straightforward retail and small wholesale business to now also running nine Jiffy vans, making buffets (27 buffets on the day of the meeting, with 35 planned for the next day) and also running a chocolate shop.

BCA members then spoke about how successful van operations had been for them. In five years, BCA members had gone from running nine vans to 78. Some ran them from their main bakery, others stocked them from the shops.

The meeting concluded with an early morning visit to Janes Pantry’s bakery to see the manufacturing of goods and the loading of the Jiffy vans, with drivers keeping 10% of sales.