EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – Uniross

Uniross is the leading name in rechargeable batteries and chargers, the best known part of its portable power product range, and over the years has earned a worldwide reputation for flexibility and for being the easiest battery manufacturer to deal with, but it’s not content to rest on its laurels.

In early 2011 Uniross extended its offering to include primary (non-rechargeable) batteries for household and professional usage, including special batteries, replacement batteries for digital cameras and camcorders, universal power supplies and innovative lighting solutions, and lamps and torches.

This was followed in October 2011 by Uniross rebranding its portfolio and launching a new range of Uniross Rechargeable batteries and chargers for consumer appliances. At the same time Uniross invested in the business and changed the way it works to offer retailers and other customers a stronger product and service proposition.

Mark Wiltshire, Uniross ‘s General Manager for UK and Ireland, spoke to The Grocery Trader.

The Grocery Trader – Mark, first of all, when did you join Uniross, and what were you doing before that? What’s your business background?

I joined Uniross in March 2011: before that I worked for a company called Newell Rubbermaid, who you will know for brands such as Parker Pens, Graco, Sharpie, Dymo Labelmakers and several other global brands. My background has always been sales and sales management; my passion is for developing people to help drive business.

GT – What is your brief as General Manager for the UK and Ireland?

My on-going objective is to re-establish the Uniross brand and the business in the UK and Ireland, and reach out to a new generation of customers and consumers. I want to make Uniross a customer friendly manufacturer and simplify the business, to make us easy to do business with.

GT – How much have you been personally involved in overhauling the Uniross brand, developing the new rechargeable range and extending the product portfolio?

We have been constantly working on the range for the UK and the rest of the world, to make sure that even during these economically tough times we are still keeping things fresh and be a leader in product development. As a battery specialist we owe it to our customers to continue to search out new products and continually evolve our range.

GT – Do you go to see major retail customers?

I do, I am and will always be heavily involved in the customer side of our business. I believe that the only way to truly understand your market and customers is to get out of the office and see what is happening at all levels of the business, not just the largest customers but a good cross section of the business. Our CEO Christophe Gurtner is also supportive of this, and always happy to come and meet with any of our accounts in the UK and Ireland.

GT – How have you reorganised the business?

Over the past year we, like so many other businesses, have had to adapt. We restructured the distribution side of our business and moved to a third party distribution partner. This has allowed us to harness their expertise in logistics to improve our service levels and we can now offer a strong service on our UK range, providing next day delivery to all our partners.

GT – Where and when was Uniross founded?

Uniross was founded in Bristol in 1968. We still have our UK office in Portishead, outside Bristol, but we transferred our HQ to France in 2001, coinciding with our expansion into Europe.

GT – Which countries are you in now?

We have subsidiaries in England, France, South Africa and China, and agents and distributors on five continents. Our international network enables Uniross to be one of the very few truly global companies and a reliable long-term partner in the battery business.

GT – Where do you develop and manufacture your products? What standards do you work to?

Uniross have always been known for quality, and this ethos is something we continue to work on with every new product or extension to our range. The majority of our products are manufactured in China.

GT – How do you compare yourselves with the other battery manufacturers? What is your proposition as the retailer’s batteries partner?

That is always a tough question to answer, with such strong competitors in the battery market like Duracell (P&G) and Energizer (Energizer Holdings Inc). It is hard to compare ourselves to them, and I guess I would say that we try not to do so. If anything we focus on areas that we are strong on due to our size, and our ability to be flexible and really work on bespoke business plans with all of our partners to drive profitable growth.

GT – How important is the UK and Ireland as a market for Uniross? What characterises the UK as a marketplace for rechargeable batteries?

The UK and Irish market is a key market to Uniross. Not only is it so important because we started here, it is a key financial market in Europe and one of the best markets in the world to build a strong brand foundation. The UK marketplace has always been strong for the rechargeable products, due to consumers here caring about the environment and being at the forefront of technology.

GT – What proportion of your UK business is rechargeable batteries and chargers?

For us in the UK, I would say we are a rechargeable specialist first, yet we also offer all other battery related products. About 75% of our business is in rechargeable.

GT – Why are rechargeable batteries so important?

Using rechargeable batteries is a viable economic and environmental alternative to disposable batteries, as they can be recharged up to 1,000 times, cutting potential battery waste volume to a 1,000th of its current level! Adopting five main environmental impact indicators, a recent survey we commissioned from Bio Intelligence Service comparing disposable batteries with NiMH rechargeables, concluded that based on 1 kWh of energy produced, rechargeable batteries have: 23 times less potential impact on non-renewable natural resources; 28 times less potential impact on global warming; 30 times less potential impact on air pollution (ozone ); 9 times less potential impact on air acidification; and 12 times less potential impact on water pollution.

GT – What proportion of batteries are recycled?

Currently, only about 25% are recycled, the other 75% are thrown away in household waste. Recycling systems are being organised by battery manufacturers, however managing batteries at the end of their life is a major educational challenge.

GT – Returning now to rechargeable batteries, what kind of savings can people make with these compared to non–rechargeable batteries?

The purchase of rechargeable batteries and a charger pays for itself after only the fifth charge. This equates to buying five or so packs of disposable batteries, whereas rechargeable batteries can be reused more than 100 times.

GT – How well do you think UK consumers understand the benefits of rechargeable batteries?

I believe we still have a long way to go in educating the consumer with regard to throwing away batteries. However, once they understand rechargeable batteries can be recharged for as little as 1p of electricity per AA battery, the whole category will change.

GT – This is clearly very important to you. What are Uniross as a company doing to get the message across?

Uniross is co–founder of two associations, RECHARGE and The UNIROSS Circle for Sustainable Development in Action and is actively committed to working towards increasing the percentage of batteries recycled, as well as encouraging the use of rechargeable power sources. We are passionate about increasing the consumer knowledge of the impact, and always work with our customers on setting up recycling points and consumer education.

GT – How long do your rechargeable batteries last, before they stop holding their charge? How should you dispose of batteries after use?

Batteries are made of chemicals and valuable raw materials. They should be collected at the end of their life to be processed for recycling in order to avoid the losses of chemicals to the environment and enhance the sustainable management of our resources.

GT – I gather you extended your product range in 2011, adding a raft of new products alongside your rechargeable batteries and chargers. What was the story behind that?

Although we are rechargeable specialists, we also had a lot of our customers asking us if we could produce other products. This led us to launch a range of Standard batteries, Alkaline, Zinc and Lithium. In fact, keeping with our passion for constant evolution, we are in the process of launching an extended range of standard batteries to cover all our customers’ needs and wants. Aside from this we also supply products for the developing market segment of portable power and are always happy to discuss other ideas with any of our customers.

GT – You relaunched the Uniross brand as a whole last year. What was the rationale?

We re-designed the Uniross logo and given it a very contemporary feel with the tag line ‘Smart Energy Solutions’ to reflect the broad range of energy products that Uniross now manufactures. The style of the packaging has also been completely transformed to emphasise the new modern logo with a clean minimal look.

GT – Selecting rechargeable batteries at the point of sale can be quite confusing for shoppers. How have you addressed that?

One of the key factors with the new range design was to make it easier for consumers to decide which product is right for them by incorporating symbols and key benefits in the packaging. Consideration has also been taken into account for existing Uniross consumers who are familiar with the previous designs by incorporating the recognisable red for Hybrio and blue for Performance.

GT – What is the difference between Hybrio and Performance? Which consumer devices use Hybrio?

Hybrio technology means batteries come pre-charged and ready to use straight from the pack. The batteries also stay charged for longer when not in use. They are ideal for low-high drain appliances: digital cameras, remote controls, torches, radios, game controllers, mp3 players, wireless keyboard/mouse and so on. Uniross were the first company to bring this pre-charged technology to market, and in my view it is a great innovation for the consumer, as this makes it no different to buying a standard battery because it can be used straight away.

GT – What new rechargeable batteries and chargers have you introduced?

The newest addition to the Uniross family is the 2400 Series Hybrio, which boasts an eagerly anticipated higher capacity to the pre-charged range. These Hybrio batteries still come ready to use from the pack and remain charged for longer, but now last even longer in devices as well! The Uniross 2400 Series Premium Hybrio are our top-scoring hybrid batteries, and achieved 101% of their stated capacity in our tests. Priced £14.99 for four, they lasted a good seven hours and 22 minutes in our high-drain conditions, and achieved an average score for time to charge, taking five hours and 21 minutes when charged using the soft-charge setting on our smart charger.

For the techies Uniross has launched the LCD 1-2hr Charger. The charger features an LCD screen, which shows the charging status of each individual battery. It comes supplied with four 2600 Series AA, the highest capacity Uniross batteries, which can be charged in less than two hours! The charger is designed to suit the needs of the most demanding user and can be charged from the mains, from the car or through USB.

GT – Do you offer rechargeable products and chargers in all the familiar battery sizes?

Yes, we do all the main sizes, AA, AAA, C, D, 9V. We try to make sure we have all the consumer needs covered with our range.

GT – Do your rechargeable batteries come fully charged in the pack, or do you need to charge them up before use?

As we discussed above the Hybrio batteries we sell do come pre-charged, and we also do a performance range that need to be charged before use.

GT – Can your chargers all be charged from the mains, from the car or through a USB port?

We have a range of chargers that can be charged from the mains, whilst some of them can also be charged in the Car or via USB, thus making them more portable for today’s market.

GT – Do you also produce private-label batteries?

Yes, we do. We are one of the world’s strongest private label suppliers: we offer a wide range of products that can be adapted quickly to your specifications and your brand: rechargeable batteries, dedicated batteries, primary batteries, flashlights and power supplies. We can help with everything from product conception to the delivery of goods into your warehouse, with laboratories, quality, product development, marketing, global logistics at our disposable we are happy to work with customers to develop their private label offering.

GT – What merchandising support do you offer?

We offer retailers a complete range of metal and cardboard displays, available in several sizes and for all products. However, with that said, we do tend to work on bespoke solutions for each customer and we always try to accommodate the requirements they might have.

GT – Where in a supermarket should retailers position rechargeable batteries and chargers for best effect?

I think the supermarkets are better positioned to answer this question: batteries are both a impulse buy and a planned purchase, so it always makes sense to have them close to the tills as you will certainly see in most supermarkets. Aside from this, dual listing batteries near any high use product that uses batteries is always a winner.

GT – What consumer promotion are you carrying out in the UK to get the message about your products across to consumers?

We are really planning to focus on social media in 2012/2013 through the likes of Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest whilst also working with customers on bespoke marketing plans.

GT – What effect is the ongoing harsh economic climate having on demand for rechargeable batteries?

We have found that during a tough economic climate the demand for rechargeable decreases due to the high initial purchase price. However with that said, if we can really increase the awareness of the cost effectiveness of rechargeable, I think we would see the category performance improve.

GT – Finally, where do you see Uniross going from here?

I would like to think we will see Uniross go from strength to strength, as we continue to evolve and develop the brand and offering for the UK market. We will also continue to strive to offer our customers the service and support that can help them drive their business and grow together.

Uniross Batteries Ltd

Tel: 01275 846980

www.uniross.com