July 23, 2020
Dana Miller

8 Ways Food Suppliers Can Become a Better Partner to Retail Buyers

As a busy food supplier, you may feel that your biggest concern is delivering your product on time and as ordered. But taking the time to build a positive relationship with retail buyers is just as important. After all, without these connections you wouldn’t have anyone to supply food to.

Buyers are busy, and are often responsible for more categories than they have time to manage. “On top of their day-to-day decisions, they’re constantly being asked to make decisions on planograms, off-shelf locations, promotions, corporate marketing programs, circulars, and online features,” says Charlie Skinner, a former buyer and sourcing director at Walmart and currently a senior director of merchandising at PetSmart. “If you’re the supplier who’s top of mind because you have a good relationship, you’re going to get more than your fair share of those opportunities.”

It cuts both ways: if a food supplier is a poor partner, the buyer may not only pass over the supplier when looking for partners for new opportunities—they may actively seek out replacement brands.

If you want to be the kind of supplier retail buyers love to work with, here are eight ways to do it.

1. Know Your Business

You know all about your products and their ingredients, but do you have solid numbers on your sales, your on-time delivery rates, and what products are trending in your business? Retail buyers need this information to decide whether you’re someone they can work with—and which of your products they should stock in their stores.

If you have a hard time getting at these numbers, you might look into the data-sharing, communication, and forecasting technologies available today that can help you collect and analyze this data.

2. Master the Essentials

A food supplier needs to have the basics of their business down before a supplier will consider them for anything beyond…well, the basics. This means sending the right amount of product at the right time, and ensuring that the food is in saleable condition when it arrives.

At Walmart, they call it OTIF: On Time In Full. “If you haven’t mastered these, you haven’t graduated to the next level of being able to talk about bigger and better things, like partnerships and innovation and shelf space,” says Skinner.

3. Stay in Touch

Good partners stay in communication with retailers on a regular basis, not just when they have bad news to deliver. “It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I only hear from suppliers when they’re not shipping on time, they’re increasing prices, or there’s something they need,” Skinner shares. 

On the other hand, you don’t want to be emailing or calling buyers every day just to stay on their radar; the key is to find an appropriate, regular cadence of communications. Ask the buyer what’s a good rhythm for them, such as weekly emails or monthly meetings. If the buyer has any information they need you to supply on a regular basis—like the weekly metrics template Skinner asked suppliers to fill out at Walmart—be sure to get that done OTIF. 

4. Share Performance Data – Good and Bad

Knowing your performance metrics at the account and channel level, and by geographic area, can help you have productive conversations with retail buyers. For example, it’s very interesting to a nationwide retail chain to know that your strawberry snack bar is selling twice as much in the Southeast as in the Northeast, or that it’s selling well online but less well in the store setting. 

Buyers do understand that not all news is good news, and they also want to know if you have any products that are underperforming. When you communicate this to your buyer, you’ll have the opportunity to ask whether you should be working to fix the products—and if so, how you can improve them together. And if you’re planning on cutting slow sellers from your portfolio, letting the buyer know helps them plan for it. 

5. Share Your Pipeline

It takes a lot of trust to share details on your products in development, but doing so shows you have the buyer’s best interests in mind—and can benefit your company, too. When you tell a buyer about a new product in the pipeline, this gives them an opportunity to plan for the future; for example, they might start making room in their shelf planogram.

Not only that, the buyer might offer feedback that will help you develop a better product, fine-tune your packaging, and more.

6. Listen to Feedback

Of course, a good partner also listens to their buyers’ feedback. Buyers know more about their customers than anyone else. So when you pitch a new product and the buyer suggests changes to the pricing or packaging, trust that they know what they’re talking about. Take good notes, ask questions, and carefully consider taking their advice.

For example, you may feel 100% certain that customers will pay $2.15 or $2.25 for your beverage. But when Skinner worked at Walmart, he saw that going above a $2 price point in the value beverage category reduced sales volume by 30% – 40%. A supplier who didn’t listen to this advice would lose out on a lot of sales, and alienate the buyer in the process.

7. Help Expand the Category

A good partnership is one where the supplier and the buyer are focused on growing the entire category. The problem is that some suppliers think of gaining consumer mindshare as a win-lose proposition, and this hurts both partners.

For some categories, like soup and shelf-stable juices, Skinner says that if you’re not building the category you’re destroying it. For example, for many years soup manufacturers weren’t interested in promoting the benefits of canned soup. “It was about how much sodium the other guy had versus you,” Skinner explains. This ended up hurting the category because when consumers saw all the labels blaring the soups’ lower-sodium status, this implanted in their minds the idea that canned soup is unhealthy. When a buyer is responsible for a category and they see a supplier working against it, they won’t be eager to work with that supplier again.

8. Become a Data Storyteller

If you’re a small- or medium-sized food supplier, your buyer likely has more data than you—but they have so much data that they have trouble deriving insights from it. That’s where you can help.

Offer data on how your products are doing not just at this retailer, but in the market overall. And don’t just throw the raw metrics at the buyer: dig in and tell them what the data means, offer insights, and suggest action items based on those insights. As they say at PetSmart, “Make the news, don’t report the news.”

For example, you could let your buyer know how your product sold last Thanksgiving, and some considerations for making the upcoming holiday successful. Should the buyer have orders in by a certain date to make sure they get enough product? Was there a combination of holiday items that flew off the shelves when displayed together? Did one particular promotion succeed while another one failed? “This information helps the buyer see around corners with your data,” says Skinner. “They can play offense and be more proactive, rather than last-minute reactive.”

There are real benefits to this approach: over 90% of suppliers and 85% of retailers said that improved data-sharing directly influences about 20% of total revenue, according to the report Winning with Retailer- Supplier Collaboration in Grocery and Drug Retail from Coresight Research. 

Good Partners Trust One Another

When it comes to being a good partner, trust, sharing, and collaboration are key. In order to do their job—and sell your product—your buyer needs to know what you have planned, what’s selling well (and what’s selling not-so-well), and actions they can take based on your company’s data.

Because more and more businesses are incorporating the concept of risk management into supplier relationships, it’s also important to prove to retailers that you’re managing your business correctly, that you’re aware of any potential risks, and that you have a plan in place to lessen those risks. Share data showing that you have the capacity to meet spikes in demand, that you’ve taken strong measures to protect intellectual property, and have processes in place to ensure a consistently high-quality product.

Ready to become a better partner to retail buyers? Reach out to us here at Crisp for a demo of our business insights dashboard.

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