How to sell to retailers in unusual times

July 2, 2020
Iram Blajchman


Contributed article by: Iram Blajchman, Founder & CEO of MAAV Inc.

Things have been hard recently. Health and family concerns as well as workplace and customer safety are all amplified stressors during COVID-19. But the reality is that business carries on, and as CPG brands, a large part of success is reliant on retail partners. During COVID-19, in-store sampling programs have been canceled, flyers have moved to digital, and promotional execution has been varied. Although some of these concerns have normalized, many brands have lost dollars and opportunities that they hope to recover, or missed growth opportunities that they need in order to survive and thrive.

So, how do you earn a retailer’s attention?

To be successful, empathy is critical. We work with people at retail—people with home lives, families and tremendous pressure. On top of this, the new stressors for retailers through COVID-19 have been astonishing. Store closures, e-commerce amplifying to staggering rates, and constant supply disruptions due to pantry loading or plant shut downs.

How significant are those stressors? Nearly every retailer interview in Grocery Business magazine for their Crisis Leadership series references supply chain. A senior leader in one of the world’s biggest retailers shared with me that supply chain is the most important topic he deals with right now, and it's at the heart of his expectation for shared ownership of problems and solutions in challenging times. A new stressor because of the spike that's happened in e-com is operating click & collect or delivery services. Horacio Barbeito, President of Walmart Canada, said in a recent TechTO Retail session that Walmart’s number one daily KPI was online order capacity. Never before have senior leaders had to face so many operational pressures as their most important task on an every day basis.

But, supply chain stressors are a constant. Like the other COVID-19 related trends, what we're seeing is an amplification of existing trends. In industry surveys, retailers make it clear: their top priority without question is supply chain. In conversations with buyers, their main focus over the last several months has simply been keeping their top selling items in stock. They are looking for partners who understand this, who are able to help them stay on top of their category in stock position by prioritizing top items and working closely with their supply chain contacts.

How to become a better retail partner

The Advantage Group, a B2B company that gathers survey data about the relationships between CPG companies and retailers, released survey results from China of 300+ senior and mid-level executives from the CPG industry in February, right at the peak of the crisis tied to COVID-19. The survey results showed that both retailers and CPG organizations experienced better collaboration during the crisis, and the actions that made the biggest impacts were accountability, limiting negotiation behaviours, accelerating problem-solving, and increasing frequency of communication. Likewise from a survey in Spain, the top expectation that retailers have heard from their brand partners was that the key contact is being accessible and an effective problem solver. Michael Medline of Empire group commented on the relationship between retailers and suppliers in Retail Council of Canada’s online series, In Conversation with Retail Leaders in Canada, “I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we have to work together and I think this will help actually. We realize we need each other. We realize how great the majority of our suppliers have been through this crisis.”

These topics are universal. Common threads: ownership, communication, problem solving. Retailers are not looking for problems to solve, they are looking for problem solvers and collaborators.

Retailers deal with a tremendous number of contacts on a daily basis. If you are in sales, your key contact at your retail partner likely has more than 100 suppliers with whom they interact. Sheri Evans, Local Development Manager at Sobeys, works directly with over 450 suppliers. She shares, “Although I work to connect with everyone, there is a priority shift in who I’m responding to and when. It is based on product and how important it is to our customers and the business.”

In sales, we have a sense of urgency. We want to close things, we want to tell our boss we won, we want to put in place the follow up steps, we want something off our plates. More important than what we want, is being aware of what our retailer wants. How relevant are we right now. How relevant and urgent is our need, our wish, our growth objective.

Retailers want the same thing as brands do—to grow—and that includes growing all the brands on their shelves, but they’re worried about another 100 suppliers who all want the same thing, and they are also concerned with the impacts to their business, their supply chain, their stores.

Be a solution for your retailer’s supply chain problems, and your retail partner might talk to you about other opportunities. They’ll do this after they have some confidence that they can solve their other 99 problems.

With those considerations, it is still critical for sales teams to be working on forward looking plans. Most large retailers are planned out 6 months or more, and so they are always looking beyond the current crisis. Clarity and simplicity in communication are even more important in times of stress. What do you want, what are you asking for, how will the retailer benefit. Summarizing and clarifying your engagement and wishes as you build opportunities will lead to meaningful success. Being available for the retailer follow up, when and how they want is also important.

Some tactical advice to achieve meaningful and consistent contact with retail partners:

  1. Hold an internal meeting with your supply chain partners weekly. Communicate a clear and simple summary on product availability/ constraints bi-weekly or monthly to your retail partner.
  2. Ensure all your items are loaded for e-commerce in all your retailer portals. Consistent product names, descriptions, and images is critical.
  3. Reinvest trade spend that was planned for Q1/Q2 into late Q3, Q4, or even into 2021 to recoup lost volume and lost opportunities. Pursue simplified executables that are highly likely to happen even if there is a wave two.

Business life continues. CPG is one of the most resilient sectors and the only growing sector in the current business climate. The additional stressors of COVID-19 on personal life and work life have not changed what’s important to retailers. It has just amplified the importance of being an excellent business partner, having a mindset of shared ownership, and being an empathetic human being.

About the author

Iram Blajchman, founder & CEO of MAAV Inc, leverages almost 20 years of experience working in all facets of CPG sales to deploy resources that help brands both large and small execute growth strategies at retail.


Interested in learning more about Sampler?

Connect with one of our sampling experts today

Speak to a sampling expert