Five things I learnt from 12 years as a supermarket buyer

Darren Smith
7 October 2015

As a supermarket buyer for 12 years, I had over 1,500 meetings with suppliers, managed over 20 categories and was responsible for £1 billion.

I saw buyers buy well, and buyers buy badly. Sellers sell well and sellers sell badly. Looking back, the advice I’d like to have given to myself, some buyers around me, suppliers that I met, and suppliers I heard about, are these five lessons:

1. Ditch the decks. I know from working with suppliers recently they can feel they are on the PowerPoint treadmill: producing slide decks week in, week out, and both sides achieving very little. As a buyer sitting in front of yet another account manager eager to share each and every slide that they had produced, I knew it had to be easier.

Action: Suppliers – don’t start with Powerpoint. Buyers – challenge your suppliers not to use PowerPoint.

2. Plan for success. Many, many times I sensed the supplier’s frustration as they had taken me through their deck of slides, spent a long time preparing for the meeting, and then finally asked me the ultimate question about a listing, or an agreement. Not surprisingly I’d always answer with: "I’ll get back to you", and then hear their disappointment.

Action: Suppliers – Prepare the buyer for the meeting. Maybe an agenda. Buyers – challenge your suppliers to provide you with meeting objectives, or an agenda, or an idea of their expectations of you.

3. Useful, actionable recommendations, please. About one in 10 suppliers put "recommendations" at the back of the slide deck. Of those, one in 30 were recommendations that I could use. Most were recommendations to fix the promotional programme, the store merchandising, or get PR to talk about the product on TV.

Action: Suppliers – Make recommendations and make them practical and realistic. Not woolly mammoths.

4. Hiding behind email is not the answer. As a buyer I was an inbox junkie. I spent most of the day married to my inbox and not blissfully. I saw buyers using emails as excuses not to speak to suppliers, buyers buried by emails, and also buyers that managed their time and their supplier relationships well. The latter were in the minority.

Action: Buyers – The challenge is to become a student of time management. The book "Eat that Frog" is a good start.

5. Both parties should know the rules of the game. The Groceries Supply Code Of Practice (GSCOP) is the government's guidelines for how supermarkets and suppliers should "play" together. Supermarket buyers have to be trained in GSCOP by law. Suppliers do not.

☛ Darren Smith is founder of Making Business Matter and author of A Complete Understanding of the Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP), out this month.

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