Success supplied on a plate

An online and mail-order firm has put producers of quality food in the shop window
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The Independent Online

Given the spate of online shopping business collapses, you could be forgiven for thinking that the last thing the world needed was another specialist consumer website.

Given the spate of online shopping business collapses, you could be forgiven for thinking that the last thing the world needed was another specialist consumer website.

But the man behind the upmarket food company Marchents is undaunted. Clive Beharell insists that the business is not relying on its website; although the online side will grow, a conventional mail- order catalogue accounts for about 85 per cent of sales.

Second, he suggests that the online market for top-quality sun-dried tomatoes, rare cheeses and the like is less limited than many people might expect. In the US, specialty foods catalogues are now so popular that there are at least two businesses with annual sales of about $50m (£30m) each, he says.

And then you can't ignore Mr Beharell himself. Having founded the Innovations Group and been involved in setting up the clothes catalogues Racing Green and Hawkshead, and the home products catalogue business McCord, he could be said to know a thing or two about mail-order retail.

Mr Beharell is not taking credit for the idea. That came from two people who used to work for him. But he says that his wide experience since the early 1980s did convince him of the need for experts to be involved in the current venture.

He has given a key role in the development of Marchents to Henrietta Green, the broadcaster and authority on specialty foods. As a champion of small- and medium-sized producers, she is central to the company's aim of fulfilling the perceived demand for high-quality produce by establishing a network of the best suppliers.

Mr Beharell has taken on the chief executive role, while Jane Knowles, who launched the McCord catalogue, is merchandise and brand director. Robin Klein, who is involved with Dial Home Shopping, the retail group Arcadia's direct marketing joint venture with Littlewoods, is also helping to build the business.

The company, set up last year, is concentrating on getting about 90 UK producers signed up to the concept by the end of November. It is also seeking to establish a Euro- pean presence.

"What it really is," says Mr Beharell, "is a place for the smaller and medium-sized producers of Europe to promote and provide their products." He sees public concern about GM foods as providing a boost. But he says he is also adamant that "organic is only part of the offering". Rather more central is the quality and the taste.

With the catalogue due out next month in time for the Christmas season, Marchents is not attempting to woo the penny-pincher. "The business is based on the premise that once people have tasted this produce they come back for more," says Mr Beharell.

He is also attempting to cater for domestic cooks' every need. The company has linked up with the cookware shop Divertimenti to offer a range of utensils and it is intended to do the same with food travel companies and cookery schools.

Mr Beharell's recognition that direct mail businesses need to have a clear promotion strategy has led to a policy of seeking to establish a physical presence through sponsorship of food fairs.

The response from producers and customers has been good, says Mr Beharell. Sales in the first year are expected to approach £1m. He reckons Marchents will be a £20m business in three years' time.

Mr Beharell and his colleagues will next year develop an arm of the business supplying their wholesale customers. With a joint venture to take the business into France and Germany under discussion, Marchents looks like it will be busy in the months ahead. As a result, many of their smaller suppliers will be, too.