During the 90’ and early 00’s I particularly remember the ‘trading style floors’. Sometimes it was 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 advice from one Director.

chazOne story sticks in my mind that illustrates the Aggressive Supermarket Buyer. A Buyer had a large category of over 80 Suppliers and the inevitable tail of sku’s, duplication, and a barrage of Suppliers wanting to launch their products. The Buyer had identified 1 sku supplied by 1 supplier, asked them to come in and delisted the Supplier in a 10 minute meeting. Putting aside the bravado around delisting the Supplier, the fault lies with both a Buyer wanting to create another story to promote their profile and a supplier not proactive to manage a problem. GSCOP would 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 recent years there have been grumblings that Buyers are taking ‘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. 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 re-balanced a little. 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 category teams to achieve a vision. They know more money can be made from increasing the size of the pie than they’ll ever make from screwing Suppliers. These ‘softer skills’ require training, an open mind, maybe some casualties, and it’s not all down to the Buyers. Suppliers will need adapt and change to meet the new demands.

A Supplier can no longer leave ‘category stuff’ to other Suppliers or Buyers, sell the product & count the money. A Supplier 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. The biggest challenge 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.

Darren A. Smith, Founder of Making Business Matter (MBM) wrote this article for The Grocery Trader. He spent 12 years as Category Manager for one of the big four supermarkets and now manages 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.


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