Rep visits from most major suppliers are to return by the end of the month, with improvements in how they work with shop owners.

Tobacco firms were the first to return to the road, led by the Philip Morris (PML) field team, which began visits on 18 May. JTI, Imperial and BAT had all resumed their store rounds by 8 June, activating JTI, BAT and Imperial’s 12-week windows for the return of menthol and non-track-and-trace stock. JTI and Imperial’s return to visits only applies to stores in England.

Teams from Cuisine de France, Lucozade Ribena Suntory (LRS), KP Snacks and PepsiCo are also now back in store.

Mondelez said its field force would be back by “mid-June”; Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) said “later in June”; Camelot said its reps would return “imminently, over the coming weeks”; and News UK said 1 July would mark the start of its store visits.

Matt Collins, trading director at KP Snacks, told betterRetailing it would also restart support offered to stores through activity in cash and carries.

Of the 18 suppliers contacted by betterRetailing, only Heineken, Red Bull, Boost, Nestlé and Mars Wrigley were unable to provide an estimated timeline for a return to store visits.

Heineken told betterRetailing its convenience field teams had been “redeployed into grocery retail”, but added: “This is only short-term. We are fully committed to the convenience channel.”

Heineken ‘redeploys’ convenience store reps to supermarkets

Red Bull and Boost responded to reaffirm support for the convenience channel.

Several suppliers warned that stores must take safety precautions in order to receive in-store support.

Alison Adderley, field sales director at CCEP, explained: “We can only visit outlets where the right social distancing practices are maintained.” While Kate O’Dowd, head of field force at PML, said: “We are asking retailers to adhere to guidance on social distancing and engaging with us while wearing PPE.”

Coca-Cola reps visits to restart this month to help stores ‘retain new customers’

Even when back on the road, suppliers listed reps self isolating, avoidance of using public transport and the need to conduct risk assessments as potential issues, and asked retailers to be patient.

News UK asked store owners to “understand if our team are unable to spend the same amount of time with them in store as previously”.

Brands including Camelot, JTI, Imperial, PML, Mondelez, LRS and News UK agreed to follow additional safety needs individual stores may have.

“The best way stores can help is to let us know what works for them,” said Camelot retail sales director Jenny Blogg.

How lockdown has changed rep support

In recognition of the challenges facing independent stores, Camelot, CCEP, News UK, JTI and Mondelez pledged to do more to ensure rep visits occur at times practical for store owners.

Alisdair Hamilton, national operations and field controller at Mondelez, told betterRetailing it would be “phoning ahead to organise visits at convenient and safe times of the day”.

The lockdown resulted in suppliers investing in online and call support for stores. News UK told betterRetailing: “We have introduced a help centre that covers supply, point of sale, access to PPE, plus a ‘request a visit’ option where stores that may have temporarily closed can ask for our help in advance of reopening.”

Christmas and Halloween orders on hold

Several brands, including JTI, PML and BAT, said they plan on continuing these support methods beyond lockdown.

PML’s O’Dowd said the company had developed a new “hybrid approach” to working with retailers, using remote and face-to-face visits.

BAT also confirmed it had developed “new ways of working with retailers”, including new communications methods and “new routes to market”.

However, face-to-face visits remain the main priority for stores.

Mondelez said it had conducted research showing 98% of retailers “want us to communicate with them via in-store visits”.

Matt Gouldsmith, wholesale channel director at LRS, agreed, stating: “We spoke with, and surveyed, a lot of retailers. The overwhelming majority wanted our team back in their stores.”

Asked about the role reps would play after lockdown, a spokesper-son for Boost Drinks said it was “looking to increase our presence in retail stores”.

Coronavirus: Shops advised to prepare for 15 June

Brands said their focus upon returning to stores would be to help stores adjust to the ‘new normal’. “Our priority is to help convenience stores retain the new customers they’ve gained during lockdown while continuing to serve long-term loyal shoppers,” said Adderley from CCEP.

She said this included larger pack sizes and lower prices.

LRS also said it would be “sharing data” about changing demand, driven by the lockdown.

Tobacco firms PML and Imperial added that helping stores respond to the menthol ban was their field teams’ top priority.

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