40 years of insights into dealing with grocery buyers at large supermarkets

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 7th September 2015

Allen Roberts is a guest contributor to Australian Food News and writes another of his regular articles here.


A new US study has found that the longer shoppers are in a grocery store, the more likely they are to impulse buy.

At a recent presentation to CEO’s in charge of  some of Australia’s leading FMCG companies Australian Food News guest contributor Allen Roberts was asked to reflect on his 40 years of experience dealing with grocery buyers.


Below are the top 15 lessons from a long, sometimes frustrating but mostly rewarding career dealing with grocery buyers at large supermarkets.  


Know your business and theirs


  1.  Know more about your business than the buyer does. This seems pretty obvious now, but in an early (late 70’s I guess) encounter with one of the doyens of the industry, Eric Bender of Franklins, he demonstrated what can happen if you are underprepared.  Eric took pity, and let me off lightly that day, and I never forgot the lesson.
  2. In a power imbalance, negotiation is challenging. Whether we like it or not, the buyer has all the power, even the biggest companies have little power to influence them in any way that is inconsistent with their best interests. I remember many years ago Coke had a blue with Coles (I think) believing that Coles needed them on shelf, so they hung tough, for a while. After a period which was a golden age for Pepsi, Coke relented.
  3. Don’t put your eggs in their basket. People often say that you should never put all your eggs in the one basket, but from time to time, when you control destiny of the basket, it is OK. However, putting all your eggs in the buyers basket has proved fatal for many, particularly small businesses that simply do not have the wherewithal to service the relationship at the margins on offer. Besides, depending on whose numbers you believe, there is somewhere north of $45 billion of sales outside supermarkets, so why do you need to covet the buyers basket.


Know your customer and control your message


  1.  Buyers are lousy at marketing. Over the 40 years this has been proved over and over again. They are good at being retailers, they understand the dynamics of their floor and shelf space, customer traffic, negotiation, and copying quickly, but very little about customer behaviour outside their stores, and the importance of branding and communication that contains a promise other than price, then delivering on it.
  2. Know the rules well enough to play in the grey areas. There are the written rules, there are the unwritten rules, and between them is a grey area of interpretation. Knowing the rules well enough, and knowing the administrator of the rules well enough to identify the grey areas and play to them is a rare skill learnt over time, with deep experience. I used to work with a field sales manager affectionately known as “Cookie”. She was the best I ever saw in a store, had the planograms in her head, knew all the personnel, what they were like, what they wanted, and how to turn them inside out. She and her team destroyed all our opposition in NSW.


Experience counts


  1. Dealing with Buyers is a job for your “A Players” the smart people in your businesses, as it can be a make or break activity. Many seem to think it is a place to train future product managers, or hide the boss’s nephew. Wrong, nobody should be a product manager without having had the chance to be mauled a few times, but that should not mean buyer training is a pathway. Only allow your smartest, best, most motivated people in front of your biggest customers, who also is paid to extract the maximum from the piece of real estate you covet. I always found professionally trained introverts were best. They instinctively over prepared, and had data driven logical and sequential minds, and were generally smarter than the buyers they faced. Ask yourself “what is someone who looks after 40% of my sales really worth?” and pay them appropriately.
  2.       Corporate memory is absolutely invaluable. Don’t re-learn from your new experience, it is really, really expensive, learn from the past. Learn from others, learn from the experience that the business has had in the past so you avoid repeating mistakes.
  3.       We have all been faced with a new buyer, recently promoted from the baked beans aisle of the store in West Bullamakanka, who is suddenly given the power of “No” over you, and found the feeling seductive. You have little choice but to work with them, so put your best people on them, and there is a chance that when a bit older and wiser, they will remember the effort, and it will pay dividends.


When it’s over it’s over  


  1.   No amount of flogging will get a dead horse to move, no matter how encouraging the vet may be, and you know he has a vested interest to keep you flogging. You must know when to give up and walk. In this case, the Vet needs your promotional money, so keeps encouraging you to stick at it, but you know the product has eroded so it only sells on price discount, which is below your floor, and the buyers keep buying it from promo period to the next, never at full tote. In the end it costs less to lead the horse out to a humane death while it still walks, rather than leave it to suffer, keeping up the strong and expensive medication, then suddenly finding it has died, and you have a warehouse full of horse food to write off.
  2.  Innovation is not changing the pack colour. Innovation is when you do something that makes the pie bigger, not just add something similar and slice it up in a different way. Besides, flagging “new and improved” leads consumers to conclude you have been selling them second rate stuff up to now. What retailers are selling to you is shelf space, and as such are going to get as much for it as they can, and they do not care if they sell your product or somebody else’s from it. You go in with your whizz bang new pack colour, they will take the promo money, and line fees, and all the rest, their business is selling you retail real estate, and if you offer a good enough price, you get the chocolates, this week.


Work with them not against them


  1. Be nice to buyers, there is little value in annoying them unnecessarily. Remember that buyers like to be liked, just like anyone else, so get them to like you, store up the brownie points when you can, you may need them some day.
  2.  Ensure the Buyer knows you are not afraid, you need to be serious, informed, appropriately acknowledging the power imbalance by being creative, but never afraid. Even when the buyer beats up on you, if you are prepared to push back, they will respect you in the morning, but if you cower and beg, well, there will never be any respect, and there will be no coming back.
  3.  Buyers do not care about you. Retailers are in business to satisfy shareholders, and the individuals buyers have targets to meet that do not have anything to do with you. They care about themselves, and the challenges they are facing, so getting them to do something you want them to do revolves around you solving their problems, not them yours.
  4.  Buyers need you or someone like you. When it comes down to it the shelf space needs to be filled. So if you can articulate the need, they will give you back a bit of the power imbalance that exists.
  5.  Beware the armchair experts. Many of those who claim expertise haven’t actually got any. So listen to all the sensible advice you can find, but make up your own mind, and implement with focus, agility and passion. There really is no better way of knowing about buyer behaviour than by working with them.


So, there it is, almost 40 years in the time it took you to read this article.