Does the Aggressive Supermarket Buyer Still have a Place?

During the 90’ and early 00’s I particularly remember the ‘trading style floors’. Sometimes it was a bit like a gym with testosterone high, tough love the watchwords, and war stories of negotiations the currency for elevating your social stature. It was hard not to get caught-up in the ‘way it is’. From Director down to Graduate the Buying Office was the place that made the money, we were told. ‘Be tough on your suppliers and here’s a way you can put them off their guard – Leave a spare chair in the meeting room and tell them that the Director will be along in a minute’, was a piece of advice from one Director.

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One particular story sticks in my mind that illustrates the Aggressive Supermarket Buyer. A Buyer had a large category of over 80 Suppliers and of course the inevitable tail of sku’s, duplication, and a barrage of Suppliers wanting to launch their products without a consideration for any sort of ‘one in, one out’ idea. The Buyer had identified 1 sku supplied by 1 supplier, asked them to come in and delisted the Supplier in a less than 10 minute meeting. Putting aside the bravado around delisting the Supplier in under 10 minutes because that is, more than anything, discourteous, the fault lies with both a Buyer wanting to create another war story to promote their own profile and a supplier not proactive to manage an obvious problem. GSCOP would now not allow this to happen under the delisting section. Read the GSCOP book to know more.

These were probably eras that needed that type of Buyer. Challenging, demanding and maybe even aggressive. Suppliers knew the game and whilst many didn’t like it, it was expected and almost revered because Account Managers told stories of how they won business despite negotiating with the ‘toughest dog on the block’. In more recent years there have been grumblings that Buyers are taking the ‘tough’ too far and Tesco was leading the pack. One story tells of a buyer asking a Supplier for money for their end of year and counting down from 30 on the phone to get a decision that isn’t really a decision, and more of a ransom. Probably urban myth, but there’s no smoke without fire. For many Tesco stepped passed the aggressive line to bullying and whilst they had the power we all knew that it could not last, all except the buyers that were wielding the power with too much force. The rest is history for Tesco, as they say.

The rise of the discounters, omni-channel retailing, the growth of convenience and GSCOP demands a new Buyer because the balance of power has been re-balanced a little. Add to that that some Buyers are starting to recognise a change is afoot. The old Buyer had huge presence, negotiated aggressively, and was money focused. The new Buyer understands the shopper, demands suppliers to be the experts in products, category & shopper, and is able to lead the internal & external category team to achieve a vision. They know that more money can be made from increasing the size of the pie than they’ll ever make from screwing the Suppliers. These ‘softer skills’ will require training, an open mind, maybe some casualties from the old guard, and it’s not all down to the Buyers. Suppliers will need adapt and change to meet the new demands of a new Buyer.

A Supplier can no longer leave the ‘category stuff’ to other Suppliers or the Buyer, sell the product & count the money. A Supplier of today that works with the new Buyer needs to be able to identify category opportunities that deliver the ‘3 legged stool’ model of winning for the Supermarket, the Shopper and themselves. And the biggest challenge for Suppliers and Buyers is to understand the last 100 yards much more. Not getting into store because of a ‘store buddy system, but getting into a store to talk to shoppers, consumers & eaters, and understand why the display doesn’t work on a Monday at 8am Vs a Saturday at 3pm. This is the key to unlocking the ‘bigger category slice’ door.

Darren A. Smith, Founder of Making Business Matter wrote this article for the Grocery Trader. He spent 12 years as a Category Manager for one of the big four UK supermarkets and now manages Making Business Matter (MBM). MBM is a training provider specialising in Sales & Marketing Teams of suppliers to the big four UK supermarkets using their unique method of Sticky Learning, they invite you to be trained in Category Management Training.