Greg Seminara, Export Solutions

Veteran sales and marketing executives have spent years of our careers preparing for and participating in sales calls on buyers ( now called category managers). Did you ever wonder what it would be like to switch places with your buyer at a major account for a day? Many of you are probably smiling pleasantly at the prospect of make loud, unrealistic, demands on your squirming buyer for a change. As you wake up to reality, the concept of “Buyer for a Day” merits consideration. Most suppliers would quickly discover that many buyers are bored by the daily parade of sharply dressed sales people with promises of the new “miracle meal” solution . Anti-social buyer behavior probably reflects the trauma created by the intense pressure to grow sales ( and extract money) in a shrinking, competitive retail environment. Listed below are our thoughts on understanding buyer motivation and how to adjust our business plans to sync with their objectives.

“Your Place and Mine” – Buyer for a Day
It is a worthwhile initiative to pursue a “sharing exercise” for a day with one of your buyers. Basically, the idea would allow you to sit in (“shadow”) a buyer for a days activities. In return, the buyer could spend a day with you at your office gaining insights into your business responsibilities and management objectives. Clearly, you would obtain first hand insights into “under the radar” buyer roles and responsibilities. The buyer would also benefit through exposure to requirements and practices to serve as a commercial sales manager for a supplier. Certainly, there are issues of confidentiality and avoiding competitive information sharing, but these are manageable if both parties are open to operating “outside the box” to secure a new learning experience. Naturally, the challenge is to find a willing buyer. Strong distributors may be able to arrange the exchange for a leading brand or pick a mid-size account where you have a good relationship.

Buyer Report Card
Another idea is to ask your buyer “What are the key metrics that you are evaluated on” ? No one will be surprised about buyer objectives related to sales increases and gross margin gains. However, you may learn that your buyer also has critical targets related to inventory turns, order fill, sustainability, or private label development. Another question is “How does your buyer spend his time ?” You may learn that the buyer sees suppliers two days a week and spends other blocks of time on category insights, merchandising meetings, store visits , or in other areas that you had never even considered. Learn how your buyer is judged , how he spends his time ,and align your own objectives wherever possible.

What’s New ?
My experience is that most buyers love the business and are thrilled by vendors sharing of truly new information and consumer insights in the categories they handle. Buyers often manage multiple categories and struggle to have time to analyze the causal factors behind the numbers. Sales representatives that avoid the trap of sharing “old news” will be welcomed . Why not invite a buyer on a “field trip” to a different market to study your category or to your product development lab to see your companies new innovation process first hand ?

Show me the Money !
I’ll never forget the experience of participating in a top level presentation with the global procurement officer of a top 10 international retailer. After a few cursory slides on the chains new store opening plans, he proudly unveiled his “incremental funding” report card. He openly stated that he was judged on “How much money he could extract from his suppliers”. He maintained a spreadsheet that tracked how much money he had received in trade incentives from major suppliers versus the previous year. The senior executive at the retailer claimed that he had no brand loyalty or favorites. In fact, he liked to play two leading category suppliers off one another to create a state of panic that would result in incremental spending plans by both manufacturers to sustain their market shares. This example would not shock anyone. We must never forget that a retailer is in business to make money, just like we are. However, large retailers have the benefit of making money through sales of access to shelves or slots or flier advertising space without having to actually having to sell more cases.

Buyer for Day presents a thought provoking concept. Even without a physical exchange of activities with a buyer, we can all take 30 minutes to think about your buyers job responsibilities, assessment metrics, and how he must spend his time. Think about what would interest you during a new product presentation. Also consider that a buyer spends his days listening to all category vendors and may be skeptical because each category participant claims that his product tastes better or works faster. Create a plan to gain credibility as a source of new category information and ideas that sync with a buyers own objectives. Lastly, a successful “Buyer for a Day” initiative will bring you closer to a key buyer , establishing a stronger personal connection that will ultimately translate to a more favorable impression for your brands and business ideas.