What ever happened to relationships?

Discussion
Nov 16, 2015

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer magazine. A long-time Harris Teeter executive, Mr. Harris is a former chairman of the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association and a member of the Refrigerated Foods Hall of Fame.

When I was new in the business, my boss told me, "You have to have good relationships with the people who call on you. They are the ones who will make you or break you."

And it was true. But today, top brass at retailers, brokers and manufacturers seem to work hard to prevent good personal relationships among trading partners.

Oh, I hear all the excuses for changing buyers and reps like undershirts. The brass wants its people exposed to all facets of the business. Or they’re afraid that if people get too friendly, there will be sweetheart deals.

When I moved from a store job and became a buyer, a boss warned me I’d be offered all kinds of things by salespeople trying to get their lines in. But I can tell you this much: In all my years as a buyer, I was offered something inappropriate maybe twice, and both times I told the people to leave, and that I did not appreciate their offer.

Buyers and sellers

Two more points here. First, any buyer worth a damn isn’t going to be swayed by a lunch or a golf game. Their careers can go South in a hurry if they start buying on anything but quality and price.

Second, don’t think for a minute that the folks in the corner office won’t hear about it if you accept big-ticket concert or game tickets from trading partners. Your "donor" will be filling out his company’s expense report, and your name will be listed under "Meals & Entertainment."

Yet it’s gotten so you need to fill out a form to take someone out to lunch. That’s if you’re even allowed to do it at all. Did I get a free lunch once in awhile? Yes. Did I ever get a house or a car? No.

The fact is that trade relations today are probably worse than ever. People go in and out of jobs quickly. They rarely get a lunch or a golf game together. They don’t really know each other very well anymore. So when something goes wrong on a deal or whatever, there’s no inner reserve or relationship to fall back on. Arguments escalate more quickly, and they’re more likely to result in real business damage. And all because someone in a corner office is afraid that a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke from a vendor will sweeten up the buyer enough to grant special favors.

Do you see personal relationships between buyers and their vendor reps as a positive or negative? Why? Are relations between retailers and their vendor reps any better or worse today than in the past?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"One of the reasons for the deterioration of relationships between trade buyers and sellers is the pressure each side has from their leadership to extract short-term financial value from the other partner."
"The underlying relationship between buyers and vendor reps has always been about business. Whether that relationship is viewed as positive or negative has never been about a meal or drinks."
"I think the grocery business had as much to wrestle through as any retailer category. The more knowledge partners have of each others’ businesses, the better planning that can be achieved."

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11 Comments on "What ever happened to relationships?"


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David Livingston
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

Working with independent supermarket operators, having a good relationship with a vendor is critical. Take their phone calls, acknowledge them and treat them special. When there is a product shortage you want to make sure you get special treatment over your competitor. My dad owned a supermarket and he was always inviting vendors to the house for lunch. He’d take them for rides in his airplane while having his workers unload their truck for them. It resulted in him getting the best deals and the best service.

Mark Heckman
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

One of the reasons for the deterioration of relationships between trade buyers and sellers is the pressure each side has from their leadership to extract short-term financial value from the other partner.

That is not to say we should throw caution to the wind and not worry ourselves with the numbers, but traditionally some pretty strong numbers were the result of long-standing relationships between buyer and seller whether the deal was consummated on the golf course or at the buying desk.

As a retail marketer, I was often the recipient of brand marketing opportunities from my retail colleagues at the buying desk, all due to their relationship and trust of the band partner they referred me to. That scenario appears to be dwindling and with it some of the good things that resulted from these relationships are going to dwindle and fade away as well.

Chris Petersen, PhD
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

The underlying relationship between buyers and vendor reps has always been about business. Whether that relationship is viewed as positive or negative has never been about a meal or drinks.

The best relationships are about helping out the other partner when it can be done. Buyers can help suppliers by advance notices on planograms and key campaigns, etc. Supplier reps can help buyers in many ways with accurate data on current supply of stock or consumer purchase patterns in a region.

The best relationships that last are based upon trust as business partners that transcends the last transaction. Those that “earn the right” are typically the ones that last and have the most success.

But let’s be clear, in this age of retail it is never easy! And the additional real-time stresses of omnichannel are testing the very best of relationships.

Tony Orlando
Guest
6 years 6 months ago
The great relationships with vendors in years past is gone for me anyway, as many vendors simply have left most independents without even saying goodbye. When the Big Box stores started making huge demands on pricing from large vendors, everything changed and we got the short end of the stick, and the funniest part to me was when the vendors tried to explain their way out of why we had to pay a way higher wholesale for the top stale items than the big boys. It pretty much ruined everything, as they thought I was naive enough to buy this load of excuses, and now most of them are gone and we must fight our own battles. The good that has come out of all this is that the vendors who are left realize that the remaining independents can be a source of some great orders, and we have built good relationships with them as we both are fighting to stay relevant. There is no going back to the good old days, and with online… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

Overall I believe these relationships have grown to be more positive in nature over the years, at least here in the U.S. I think the grocery business had as much to wrestle through as any retailer category. The more knowledge partners have of each others’ businesses, the better planning that can be achieved. Hopefully gone are the days when “sweetheart deals” were the norm. Today, there are more opportunities to grow profitably through increased collaboration with trade partners.

J. Kent Smith
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

Setting reasonable rules and making them well known are two keys to “managing” relationships. There are some organizations whose culture has developed into fear in this regard — they strive from no relationship outside of work. MAYBE that’s going to work in a big city, but I’ve been in circumstances where vendors have lived very close to me, our kids were friends, etc. Again, be reasonable with rules and make sure everyone knows. Gifts make slaves, but measures that restrict one’s life make for an unhappy, and ultimately unmotivated, team.

Shep Hyken
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

The best relationships between buyers and their vendors are more like partnerships. When the vendor cares about the retailer’s success then there is an opportunity for partnership. If all the vendor cares about is the order — and the money — it will always be a vendor relationship.

In addition, I love taking a page (or many pages) from Harvey Mackay’s book, “Swim with the Sharks.” He shows how the relationship trumps everything. His questionnaire, known as the Mackay 66, is a great example of how building a relationship and getting to know your customer is paramount to the success of the partnership.

richard freund
Guest
richard freund
6 years 6 months ago

A good rep will be an asset to any buyer if there is trust in the relationship because the rep has to know when to step back and allow the buyer to do their job. This is a fine line that requires subtlety and insight into the buying process.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

At the end of the day, while relationships are important, vendors need to add value to their customers and vice versa. Personal relationships might not result in a positive sale if your competitor makes a better offer to the retailer. However, such relationships can break ties.

Unfortunately, the term relationship is overused and not always positive. Remember a dog and a fire hydrant have a relationship. The German word for partnership is Partnerschaft. This thinking, which is becoming more pervasive today, does not bode well for improving relations between retailers and their vendors.

Dan Raftery
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

A couple of changes in business practices over the last few years have fostered the deterioration in supplier/buyer relations at most of the larger companies, in my opinion.

First, as Johnny Harris points out, people are not in these positions very long. So, the opportunity to develop a relationship and performance history (trust) is gone.

Second, most of the important decisions made at retail are made by committees or at least at some level higher than the buyer. So the time it takes to get a new item from presentation to shelf is longer than it used to be.

And if margin is not better than current, forget it … won’t even be presented internally.

Note that some retailers are changing position titles to drop “buyer” and add some version of “vendor relations” and some supplier “sales representatives” are in the business of “customer relations” now. In my humble opinion, this is a subtle resognition that the functions in what used to be the adversarial art of merchandising have been dumbed down a bunch.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
6 years 6 months ago

They have to be positive. No one wants to buy from someone they can’t have a positive relationship with. If you go back and read Tony’s comments, you can see how a negative became a positive. Relationships are built over time. Some times the trust happens quickly. Other times it can take longer. Patience is important in relationship building. There is an old expression I have believed and followed for many years. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

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Braintrust
"One of the reasons for the deterioration of relationships between trade buyers and sellers is the pressure each side has from their leadership to extract short-term financial value from the other partner."
"The underlying relationship between buyers and vendor reps has always been about business. Whether that relationship is viewed as positive or negative has never been about a meal or drinks."
"I think the grocery business had as much to wrestle through as any retailer category. The more knowledge partners have of each others’ businesses, the better planning that can be achieved."

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