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Tales of a Category Captain

Prior to becoming a Sales Engineer at Crisp, I was a Category Manager at Schwan's and a Vendor Performance Manager at Target, where I gained a valuable perspective on the role of category management in helping both brands and retailers succeed. Here, I'll break down the role of Category Captain and share how brands of all sizes can use category insights to unlock retail growth.

What do Category Captains do?

In a nutshell, Category Captains help both brands and retailers succeed in a given category. They’re dedicated staff members within CPG companies (usually one of the top two sellers in the category) who serve as a consultant to the retailer, leveraging data and market insights to inform growth of the category as a whole. The role has a surprising amount of influence, from evaluating new items coming into line review, to grouping stores into clusters based on demographics and regionality, to actually drawing physical planograms for how products will be displayed in stores. It’s a huge benefit to retail buyers to have this input, since they're often in charge of too many categories to monitor any one with enough granularity. Plus, the Category Captain can help retailers gain important perspectives by sharing insights from outside their banner’s four walls. While it may seem strange that a supplier is willing to dedicate full-time staff to consulting a retailer, it’s ultimately beneficial for brands to see categories (and yes, their own products) grow. Bottom line: if the category is healthy, everyone wins.

As an emerging brand, you might feel left out of this equation. While it may sound like a two-way-street between a leading supplier and their buyer, a Category Captain's decisions affect all brands in the category. Part of my role in line reviews, for example, was to effectively serve as a gate-keeper to new brands and products entering stores. If you’ve pitched a product to a retailer, someone like me has probably seen it. As a result, Category Captains hold valuable insights that can help emerging brands break through -- insights that I’m going to share with you.

The case for categories

First, a general piece of advice: brands don't think enough about their role in growing categories. As Charlie Skinner, a former buyer and sourcing director at Walmart and currently a Senior Director of Merchandising at PetSmart, says, “if you’re not building the category, you’re destroying it.”  

Here’s why: if you’re just trying to grow your product at all costs, then you’re probably taking sales from other brands in your category to benefit your own -- a zero sum game. If that’s the case, why would a buyer bother shuffling shelf space from another supplier to you? It’s additional work and risk for no real upside. On the other hand, if you can speak to a buyer about incremental growth that brings new buyers to the category, they’ll be highly interested. 

So how do you do that? Think about what makes you unique. Innovative products will attract a different set of buyers to the category. You might want to leverage syndicated data from a provider like Nielsen to understand your product’s demographic and how it relates to the category’s. Ideally, you will strike the balance of playing into the retailer’s core shopper demographic while expanding the demo of the category. Brands in gluten free and alternative meats have done this well recently, attracting shoppers who don’t have a serious gluten allergy and who aren’t strictly vegetarian.

Advice from the Captain's seat

After reviewing countless product pitches for the categories I managed (Frozen Pizza, Desserts, and Gluten Free), I have a few tips to help you pitch more successfully. All of them have one thing in common: data. The fact is, you’re past the days of getting into a major retailer purely because you have a great product. With valuable shelf space at a premium, you need to prove to buyers (and Category Captains) why your product is likely to succeed. Here are five ways to do that:

  • Performance in the category: Use data to show how you’ve performed in the market so far, wherever you’re currently sold. That usually comes down to velocity. Does your velocity outpace the category, or fall below average?
  • Regional relevancy: This has become increasingly important as retailers develop locally relevant product mixes, and could mean your product can find a regional sweet spot. For example, Chicago has unique pizza brands based on its regional favorite style, and carries more variety than what you can find nationally. If you can prove strong local relevancy, you can sell this as a pilot program to roll out in a handful of stores (and gradually build a case for expansion). 
  • Success outside the four walls: Use any data that can highlight success you have had with other retailers (without disclosing confidential information, that is). It helps you prove what you can do, estimate the potential upside for the retailer you’re pitching, and share tangible best practices to successfully merchandise your product.
  • Don’t give up: If you don’t have the data yet, have no fear. Major retailers like Target, Walmart, and Kroger will often use a “wait and see” approach with emerging brands. That may mean a slow rollout in 1-2 stores, where you’ll have the opportunity to present success at the next line review. Even if you get advice to go sell in smaller grocery chains first, that’s not a dismissal. These big retailers watch to see what other retailers do and adopt the ideas or products that work.
  • Reliability: Your buyer and the category captain are not the only gatekeepers you need to impress. The inventory team will also have a say, and they want to see that you can support and supply your product. You need to show that you can produce at scale, which may mean walking before you can run (see the previous tip).

Now that you understand a category-focused growth strategy (and who you need to impress with this knowledge), take these guidelines into your next line review or product pitch. Crisp is here to help you pull together a compelling data story by leveraging retail, distributor, and syndicated data to extract meaningful insights and trends. To learn more, contact us for a demo.

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