Speed to Market

Talk to any retailer or supplier and they’ll tell you that the importance of speed to market can be paramount to the success or failure of any sales strategy.
If a product is faulty, the last thing a supplier or retailer wants is for consumers to still be reaching for them on the shelves. They want them off the shelves and out of sight to prevent headaches surfacing from unsatisfied customers. “In this day and age, speed to market is critical in order to maximise the potential of any new line,” says Gordon Sinclair, Managing Director of Lincoln Brokerage, a sales agency specialising in the garden and outdoor category. “Product life cycles are shortening as features are either copied or improved upon by competitors in an ever-changing retail world. The ability to get stock into store and on to shelf or display in a timely and efficient manner, and then ensure that the stock remains available for sale, are simple but key requirements for success.”

The matter of short product life cycles is especially relevant to the garden category, whose stock is largely seasonal. In September 2010, Lincoln Brokerage implemented a sales plan with Australian Prime Fibre, marketer of the Sweet Garden and Earthwise range of Australian sugar cane-based mulches and soil conditioners. The task was to coordinate the new ranging of Sweet Garden sugar cane mulch bales into Bunnings nationally following the depletion of old stock and in parallel with an allocation of promotional stock.

“The efficient management of this program was particularly challenging,” explained Gordon. “Not only was the peak season looming, but the bulky nature of the product made storage and handling difficult at a time when stores were already full to overflowing with spring stock.” “Hardware has minimal health issues though, so recalls are not as frequent in as the grocery industries,” says Ian Hutchinson, from Dynamic Sales.

True, but not always. Lincoln Brokerage, for example, differs from many hardware-related sales agencies in that it concentrates on an area in which some SKUs have short shelf lives due to their seasonal nature and expiration issues. Speed to market, therefore, can be all the more important. As for how important, it may depend on who the client is. One company with extensive experience in the high turnover grocery field is Strikeforce Alliance, which started servicing the hardware industry about 18 months ago after years of performing similar tasks in supermarkets through its specialist grocery arm, AMC. Strikeforce, through its grocery arm, already had an ‘impact team’ set up, which it called Retail Worx. This team, according to Strikeforce’s National Business Manager – Hardware, Malcolm Rowley, specialises in product recalls, relays and refresh setups, and is separate to Strikeforce’s national sales team. “The impact team is a national field force that operates in all states,” Malcolm explains. “We are able to provide a team of over 300 merchandisers who work across all channels. “Recently, our impact team completed 220 relays over a four-week period, averaging 10 bays per store. We provided teams of six to complete this task in-store, with the movement of over 100 SKUs per relay.

“Each impact team in each state is managed by a Strikeforce Project Manager, whose main responsibility is to ensure that KPIs are met. They may include meeting budget expectations, meeting timelines, coordinating store sets and managing the impact team.” Many agents have similar setups to Strikeforce in being able to mobilise – at short notice – ‘impact’, ‘surge’ or ‘tactical’ teams, i.e. back-up personnel who they can call on when needed. Others prefer to use their existing staff because of the relationships and level of trust those staff members have developed with clients. “We utilise existing staff members wherever possible as we feel store, product knowledge, familiarity and experience are all vital to achieving optimum outcomes,” says Dane Stokes, from Sales Net Marketing. Stephen Keany, Managing Director of WA-based Force One, disagrees, preferring to separate his workforce into two distinct departments.

“If we used our merchandisers to complete store relays, this would take the merchandiser away from their highly specialised work,” he says. “So, in addition to our full-time staff of over 50 around Australia, we employ dedicated relay staff to cater for new stores, refits, etc.” A third option is to use a combination of the two, drawing personnel from specialised teams as well as those looking after day to day operations. In the end, an agency will do what’s required to get the job done. How they arrive at that point is up to them.

“We have a Tactical Team Manager with the capacity to draw on stand-by staff who love the challenge of taking on specific tasks,” says A-Team Merchandising’s John Hughes. “He is responsible for putting in place the training, co-ordination and manpower to make it happen. Often, we also use the skills and experience of our business development personnel who are responsible for each state. As required, they become more active in the field to implement and coordinate in a very hands-on way. “Whatever approach we use, it is extremely important to have the processes in place to ensure that the project is executed with consistency, 100% take up and the outcomes can be quickly and simply reported back to the client and the retailer, if necessary.”

“Relationships on the floor are key,” says Paul Baxter, Managing Director of Paul Baxter Agencies, which focuses its efforts on east coast Australia. “Late last year, we were asked by our client to recall their shelved products sitting in Bunnings stores. Our merchandise team with this distributor has a great rapport with our business partners’ teams in the aisles. With their cooperation, the recall was smooth and swift; they were packed up and returned in two fortnightly call cycles. “As we are a relatively new company,” Paul continues, “my plan was always to ‘over resource’ to be able to handle any issue, and be able to mobilise or respond quickly to rapid growth and/or urgent market needs.” In July 2009, Retail Dynamics personnel met with GSM Sales to review their capabilities for servicing their soon-to-be-ranged Bellini cooking appliances in Bunnings Warehouses in every state bar Western Australia. A trial was arranged in a handful of Bunnings stores, after which the product was rolled out nationally, with Retail Dynamics installing the range in display pods and kitchens. “The rollout was completed prior to the allocated time of four weeks, with the project including installation of appliances, position of brochures and holders, ticketing, and feature and benefit tags. That was followed up by a full merchandising and vendor refill service,” says Tim Anderson, CEO of Retail Dynamics.

Thanks to that successful project, Retail Dynamics was awarded further projects with GSM, and additional merchandising services on their other products within the retail market. In a sales agent’s business, communication is just as important as personnel. How does a supplier, for example, know when it needs to restock a particular retailer? Even with the world’s best workforce at hand, a sales agent might not possess adequate software to be able to relay that information, and what it considers ‘adequate’ may end up being a case of trial and error. “Communication, and the way we provide information and feedback to the team, has changed significantly over the past 10 years,” says Gordon Sinclair. “After trialling a number of systems, we settled on one that combines paper, intranet and phone, as we found no single medium provided all the tools required.”

“We update both the retailer and supplier on our daily progress,” says Dane Stokes. “It is the combination of attention to detail, speed to market and a competitive costing structure that instils the level of confidence required in retailers to impart such a task to a third-party supplier.” There’s also the problem of servicing a supplier when their retail clients are dispersed across the country. It must be easier to coordinate a product rollout or new planogram installation on a retailer with a uniform format – like Bunnings, for example – than achieving the same result servicing independent hardware store owners.

“Speed to market in independent channels is a more difficult proposition due to the nature of these models and their predominantly regional locations,” says CROSSMARK’s Adam Scanlan. “CROSSMARK employs full-time sales representatives in each state who hit the majority of stores within a three-monthly call cycle. We have the capability to employ our surge team in this area, but costs would most likely be prohibitively high for a supplier due to the volume of travel involved.” All of these considerations come into play when a supplier decides to go with one agency over another. Choosing one that is the right fit can be crucial to the success of both parties.

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