Over a coffee today, I was chatting to a friend about the scale of Tesco’s recent loss. £6.3bn in an enormously cash-generative business is some feat. Sometimes though, it’s best to take the pain with big cuts rather than little slithers, and this feels like a case in point. While it seems few and empathising with Tesco that much, for many suppliers it will create shudders of commercial fear. A reduction of 20,000 stock keeping units has been promised: you can bet that these results, store closures and closure of new store opening programmes are hardening that resolve at Tesco HQ.
And of course, it’s not just Tesco: all ‘middle ground’ retailers are struggling, their ills manifesting themselves in different ways. The concern is that the emerging reaction is underpinned by fear. Fear for the retailers that their like-for-likes will relentlessly fall and with it the share price (and with that the value of executive long-term incentive plans). Fear for suppliers, that their brands just need to slash to survive; slash their range; slash their prices; slash their profits; slash their staff numbers.
If ever there was a time for brands to step forward and own – or create, if necessary – their category agenda, it is now. This is an easy thing to write, I know. And perhaps it is not a ‘rocket science’ statement, I admit: but it needs to be said nonetheless. My fear is that the reaction within buying teams, within marketing teams, within sales teams is for category management. To understand the dynamics in the nth degree of detail; to range accordingly; to push into the ‘big data’ under the guide of ‘insight’ and negotiate new terms, or defend accordingly. Probably, big suppliers with a strong portfolio want this – it’s an opportunity to claim their fair share of space when for years they have been under-spaced. But most, the majority, will hunker down and prepare for trench warfare.
The current crisis in UK food retail though, is not really a crisis in organisation or supply. Tesco won’t see it that way I’m sure, and I support their open heart surgery. But underneath it all, this is a crisis of identity and of market position. Of who plays around the edges with unique, but more narrow positionings, and who will stand up for the middle ground proudly, distinctively and prepare to inspire.
There’s always been an opportunity for the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda or Morrisons – and the brands who sell through them – to do this – but none has taken it. And they haven’t because everyone has been distracted by the minefield of eggshells they have been mutually created. Can the brand trust the retailer to deliver on their distribution promises and activation? Can the retailer trust the brand to deliver the progressive innovation agenda and improvement in terms? The dialogue becomes tentative, untrusting. And then, in walks an Aldi and boom! The agenda has changed and you’re on the back foot.
This is the time for a new dialogue between brands and retailers that must be built on trust. Now is not the time for category management, now is the time for category leadership. For brands to step forward and be bold with their vision, their agenda, their picture of the future. To partner with retailers to create a shopping experience that helps the consumer; that solves those small but important problems in their life; that delivers value certainly, but not just low price. And it’s time for retailers to step forward and be bold too: to be clear what they are offering and work with brands to create this mutual vision. An agenda that builds the brand not just the retailers’ sales. It is time, in short, for all the words around ‘win:win’ to be put to one side and for the actions to follow suit.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success. email@example.com; +44 (0) 7885 408367; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.
© The Crow Flies, 2015