The Secret Marketer: Do supermarket buyers understand brands?

I recently likened the behaviour of UK grocery multiples to that of rogue traders. I apologise for any offence caused. As with all trades, I suspect there are many good operators and it is a small minority who sometimes give the rest a bad name. The problem is that the UK grocery trade is indeed controlled by a minority. Minority in number, but dominant in every other sense.

Maybe I have been at this game for too long, but all the fun seems to have gone out of supplying the supermarkets. I can’t remember the last time a buyer actually showed any interest in the brand I represent beyond the financials. “Would you like to taste the new products? No, I am sure they will be fine.” Not entirely consistent with the celebrity chef-fronted foodie positioning that so many choose to adopt.

In their heyday, retailers such as Marks & Spencer were the leading light in food buying. They would pair a skilled food selector with a hard-nosed negotiator. Palate and profitability worked side by side. It appears that products are now simply a barcode.

“In their heydey, retailers would pair a skilled food selector with a hard-nosed negotiator”

My recent frustrations have nothing to do with M&S, but relate to several of its high street contemporaries. I can’t help but believe that these traders would do well to show a little more interest in the things they sell: surely many of their customers are still motivated by how a product performs and do not spend all of their spare time studying price comparison websites.

I continue to feel somewhat mugged after my recent round of annual business plan negotiations with such retailers. Those readers who are familiar with dealing with the multiples will understand the hypocrisy that can exist in these discussions. Take the VAT rate change, for example. Several retailers have made statements that they will not be passing on the VAT increase to their customers. Good on them.

Instead, they’re seeking to pass the bill to their suppliers, taking all the glory while pretending they have taken the pain.

I couldn’t help but pull a wry smile as I sat in the reception of one such retailer last week. As I was kept waiting for the meeting by the buyer, I was forced to pay for my own coffee in the visitors area, greeted by a sign that announced that prices at this particular outlet had in fact increased due to the recent VAT increase. I think that’s called having your cake and eating it.

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