RN exposed the drastic fall in rep visits retailers have experienced in recent years, as margins have been squeezed and suppliers have placed their focus elsewhere.
“Suppliers are continually reducing operational costs and seeking to lower the cost to serve. This results in less ‘feet on the ground’ support for the industry in general,” says David Gilroy, former Bestway director and co-founder of Store Excel.
Yet, in an age where the use of data and technology is opening opportunities for stores to catch up with the intelligence and innovation of online retailing, reps could hold the key to helping independent retailers capitalise.
Companies such as Trax are already partnering with a number of major suppliers to use imaging hardware and data-driven software to help gain a greater sense of control of what is selling and where. Trax is using reps ‒ as well as cameras ‒ to get out to stores and discover where products are being stocked.
During an effort to boost sales ahead of this year’s World Cup, Trax worked with Coca-Cola’s Russian division, which tasked its reps with taking pictures of displays from across the country and feedback what they were seeing.
By using the information and adapting the advice and programmes they were working on with stores, Coca-Cola reduced out of stocks before the World Cup by 63% providing an uplift in sales of 6.4%.
“Enlightened suppliers are data-hungry and want front-end sales information to better understand the sell-through performance of products and at what time of the day or week sales materialise,” Gilroy says.
With the opportunity for mutually beneficial and profitable initiatives and information sharing in the years ahead, RN asked a wide variety of retailers from across the UK about the way they work with reps and how things might be bettered.
What has emerged from this research is a number of areas for improvement and minimum standards that store owners feel they need to see in the future.
Retiring the old ways of working
One clear way that suppliers could ensure that their reps are presenting themselves as experts is through providing cross-category advice. Major suppliers have built websites around doing just this, but it seems that on the ground, retailers often face a different picture.
“Mars and Cadbury reps are regulars in my store, but they’re not looking across or even within categories,” says Scott Graham, of McLeish in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. “They are just making sure that you’re carrying their lines and have a certain amount of facings for their products. They’re not giving wider, tailored advice.”
The picture is similar in the world of tobacco, too, according to Nainesh Shah, of Mayhew News in Mayfair, central London. “At the moment, the tobacco industry is really fighting with each other. The market is shrinking, so the number of reps coming in is enormous, each one trying to keep their products on our shelves. The market has become very tight,” he says.
Ultimately, retailers like these are tiring of feeling like their stores are the battleground in a war between companies that ultimately benefits them little. When rep relationships work they can make a real difference to a store, but retailers are also now less likely to fall for
a gimmick in these cynical times, it appears.
Shelley Goel, owner of One Stop Gospel Lane in Birmingham, puts it succinctly: “At the end of the day, the aim is to make money. Reps give you free pens and free cinema tickets – but you have to think long-term with these things.
“Do you really want a £3 cinema ticket when you could have £30 in your pocket instead?”
David Worsfold, of Farrants Newsgent in Cobham, Surrey, meanwhile, laments the arrival of tobacco reps who pressure him into stocking new and unproven products. “If a rep comes in and says they will give me a £10 voucher to buy £100 of stock when actually it’s just going to clog up my gantry for two years, then I’ll say ‘no’,” he says.
With a growing number of category management websites cropping up across every category, suppliers seem to be aware of the added category-management value they need to provide retailers with. Yet, the fact this comes up repeatedly as an issue with retailers serving different communities suggests they still feel like too many hollow rewards are being given away in place of real advice that would benefit them.