Field marketing appears to be suffering from an identity crisis, if the response from many major retailers is anything to go by.
Indeed, field marketers appear to have become so unfashionable these days that many of the high street retailers have simply dispensed with their services, preferring instead to do the job in-house.
This is certainly the case at supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Asda. High street music store HMV also believes that instead of paying for a third party to come into its stores, it is in the best position to carry out its own field marketing work.
HMV spokesman Gennaro Castaldo says: “It’s unlikely we’d get involved with an external field marketing company. No-one should know more than us about merchandising. I would like to think we know how to promote products effectively in our stores.
“We believe we are the best people to carry out field marketing. Part of that means having the staff in place who can provide a good service. We know what the customer wants and how to maximise floor space. Ultimately, it’s a retail skill you’re talking about.”
This doesn’t cancel out the opportunity for specific brands (labels in this case) to come in and discuss ways in which to promote products. But as Castaldo adds: “It must fit in with our layout and format. It’s important to balance what’s being promoted with the rest of the store.”
While HMV likes to control the whole field marketing process, other retailers are willing to use an external company, as long as the work they do has the retailer’s seal of approval.
Frank Kiernan, group marketing manager at the Dixons Group, which owns the PC World computer chain, stresses that as long as the field marketing work is “co-operative”, he is happy. Problems can occur, however, when a field marketer pays little or no attention to the retailer and rigidly acts on behalf of the manufacturer.
“The biggest crunch point comes when a field marketer is acting on behalf of, say, Compaq, who has given them instructions to go and perform a task, but there is no acknowledgement of the store. That can cause untold damage. It’s our brand, it’s our sales proposition. If we weren’t buying the goods there would be no sale,” says Kiernan.
“It’s imperative that we agree jointly to the field marketing work. As long as it’s centrally co-ordinated that’s fine, but without our authorisation it all comes to nothing.”
EMS, an IT and consumer electronics specialist, which acts on behalf of computer manufacturers including Microsoft, IBM and Apple, recognises the key role played by the retailer.
Richard Thompson, chairman at EMS, says: “We work closely with PC World and have meetings with senior management to ensure that what we’re doing has value.We’re always looking for feedback. The store relationship is vital.”
Kiernan adds that Dixons is happy to take the initiative in the development of field marketing strategies. He believes the relationship works best when the field marketer is given a budget by the manufacturer, and then asks the retailer how to best use those funds.
The use of field marketers for the purposes of low-level training on new technology also proves invaluable. “The dissemination of information is remarkably good at the level they can provide. When the field marketer is hitting a store two or three times and explaining a promotion at a salesman’s level it is very worthwhile,” says Kiernan.
“There’s a lot of ground to be gained using an experienced base of people. We may not have the best person doing a particular demo on a new PC. The field marketing company can come in and improve that.”
From EMS’ point of view, store promotions are a key ingredient in its success as a field marketer. “A good demonstrator could maybe sell 20 printers or ten PCs in a single day. Stores can’t get enough of that,” says Thompson.
However, Kiernan stresses that a field marketer which hasn’t given its staff the proper training can cause untold damage. Some field marketing companies have been banned in Dixons stores because they’re simply not up to the job.
When they do know their job, field marketing companies play a pivotal role in the success of a product. For example, in the lead-up to Christmas last year, a team of retail advisors from Aspen Field Marketing, working on behalf of games publisher Electronic Arts (EA), increased store space for EA products by about 20 per cent through twice-weekly visits to retailers such as WH Smith, PC World and Tesco, training store staff and co-ordinating the release schedule for EA games.
This is a typical field marketing scenario, in that while the retailer is happy to take a back seat in terms of investment, it reaps the benefit of bigger sales courtesy of supplier-funded marketing activity.
One exception to this rule is in the supermarket sector, where field marketers will often work across a store’s entire product range, and are employed by the retailer to carry out their work.
This is the case with REL (Resource Experience Limited) whose supermarket clients include Waitrose and Morrisons. As part of its marketing programme, Waitrose asks REL to provide in-store demonstrations three or four times a week.
Phil Taylor, trading director at REL, explains that some supermarket brands may spend a fortune on above-the-line advertising, but when the product can be linked to an in-store demonstration, they have realised this is invaluable in terms of generating sales.
Taylor also believes the use of in-store demonstrations is still on the increase. “The concept is now stretching to products as diverse as hot foods, beauty products and detergents,” he says.
Safeway also works with an agency, MSF (Merchandising Sales Force). MSF now employs full time staff at Safeway’s head office in Hayes to co-ordinate all of its demonstrations.
MSF will work with Safeway suppliers on a range of home brand and supplier-funded demonstrations. David Osborne, Safeway marketing manager, who heads up the team that works on supplier-funded demonstrations, says: “The team works closely to ensure suppliers gain the most from their budgets.
“Sometimes suppliers work together to support a larger event in-store such as the World Cup. We will discuss all options with suppliers and put together a co-ordinated package, including the opportunity to carry out in-store demonstrations.”
Tesco also uses a single company, IMP (International Marketing and Promotions), across its whole product range. IMP’s remit is simply to communicate new products to Tesco’s customers, again usually in the form of product demonstrations.
Fraser Macdonald, events marketing manager at Tesco, explains: “We use IMP when customers need to be educated about a niche product or perhaps a new counter that opens in the store. It’s not rocket science. A lot of their work is demonstrations especially on fresh convenience products.”
Tesco’s philosophy is that IMP is in a far better position to handle demonstrations, while the store sticks to its core competencies such as its “One In Front” initiative.
“IMP’s work is predominantly demonstrations. We did look into training our own staff up but we are very careful not to overload them,” says Macdonald. “They are an external work force but we treat them like our own staff,” he says. “IMP has established expertise because they do this line of work all the time.”
During the seven years Tesco has been using IMP, it has also noted that the rate of demonstration-based activity has grown dramatically, signifying that field marketing does still have a significant contribution to make in supermarkets.
Tesco, however, still has a large say in the work IMP carries out in its stores. “We’re extremely hands-on in our field marketing approach. We have a weekly update and currently have four or five ideas we are looking at jointly. It’s a team effort,” says Macdonald.
The job of the field marketer clearly varies considerably according to the retail sector, and there are as many approaches to a field marketing project as there are different clients.
What is apparent is that where once field marketers undertook merchandising and selling, now the emphasis is widening to include training and account management. A few years ago, people still had a jaundiced view of field marketing – a smiley woman standing in a supermarket asking customers to try a sausage on a stick. Clearly, the industry has come a long way since then.
While retailers are happy to co-operate with the development of field marketing strategies, they are less willing to invest in the activity. Rather surprising, considering the retailer is the obvious beneficiary of the field marketing work.
This should not detract from the job field marketers do, although it may explain why retailers hold the balance of power in the relationship. When it comes to investment, the ball is very much in the supplier’s court, unless, as is the case with some supermarket chains, the field marketer is employed to work on an exclusive basis across the whole store.