“DON’T SHUT US OUT – WE’RE HERE TO HELP”

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Reps grounded by Covid restrictions are concerned for their retailers.

After nine virus-riven months, routine rep visits to retail stores are no longer the norm. 

Yes, ‘live’ meetings are happening, restrictions permitting. But a bit of banter over a cuppa while crowding around new product samples is a distant memory. 

Of course, reps and retailers alike love a gossip, otherwise known as ‘exchanging market intelligence’. But that’s largely gone missing. 

And what’s happening to the other valuable services these travelling sales men and women provide? Who’s doing the staff training, checking stock levels and renewing point of sale material – all those things visiting reps usually do as a matter of course?

Nowadays, it’s often those very field sales people that have themselves become the topic of speculation and rumour… Whose sales team is still furloughed, who’s been laid off, who’s soldiering on? 

Then there’s the question of which stores are allowing reps to visit. And what sort of reception they get when they do. 

Reps are going to huge efforts to visit stores in a Covid-safe way. But where they’re not welcome, are retailers missing out on commercial opportunities? Reps who spoke to ETN believe they are.

Slippery slope

Peter Forster, UK sales manager for bedding brand Nedz, has been in sales ‘on the road’ for more than 20 years. 

As far as visiting stores goes, Peter’s finding that many independents are “being fantastic and very accommodating”, but some retail chains are not so keen. 

“Of course, reps are very careful [on visits],” he adds. “We make appointments, we don’t expect cups of tea, and we can stand outside in the car park or a warehouse if people prefer. I’ve even called on some shops out of hours.”

Peter says that while “many reps are struggling”, his is not a sob story. “We’re there to enhance and help [retail] businesses and keep them going forward,” he emphasises.

“Not wanting to see reps is a slippery slope. Retailers can so easily lose touch, miss seasonal promotions and new products.”

Face-to-face

Liz Smith is a self-employed agent with 28 years’ experience in field sales. She covers Scotland for her band of equestrian brands, so in normal times clocks up a huge mileage. 

“It’s actually been very busy the past few weeks” she told ETN. “There’s plenty going on – feed sales have been incredible.”

Liz is not so happy about being stuck in her home/office. “I’m used to being behind the wheel of a car, so driving a computer is not fun,” she said. 

“When you’re used to selling face-to-face, Zoom or the phone feels a bit remote on a human level. 

Indeed, Liz believes the coronavirus pandemic is making things incredibly difficult for rookie reps who have yet to build a rapport with their retailers.  

“My customers already know me and I know them. We have a relationship; and that helps so much,” she explained, modestly failing to add that her retailers trust her too.

What’s new

Finding out what’s new is another reason why retailers need rep visits.

One rep, who didn’t wish to be named, told ETN: “If you’re introducing some new items, it’s so important for buyers to be able to see and feel them.

“This [pandemic] has highlighted how important touch is. Not just the handshake or hug, but being able to feel products and even try them on. 

“Now some stores are even worried about putting out leaflets or samples in case people pick them up and put them down again.”

Another rep told ETN that some retailers’ negativity is disappointing. “Now that I have to phone ahead for appointments, it gives them the chance to say ‘no’.”

More than one rep pointed out that staff training, especially on new and technical products, just isn’t the same over the internet. 

Then there’s the downright disgruntlement. “It’s daft,” said one rep. “I could go in [to a store] as a shopper, but apparently I’m not welcome on an arranged appointment. And that’s probably safer than a trip to the supermarket.”

Smiley faces

“2020 has been strange for everyone,” says Martin Bielby, UK sales manager for British Horse Feeds. “However, we’re lucky to work in the industry we do. Animals still have to be fed.  

“We’ve kept going because we’re here to help our customers,” he added. “We want their businesses to grow as much as they do.”

Having carried on working all year, Martin says that British Horse Feeds has “really looked after us [as employees]. We’ve also got The Golden Paste Company, so it’s been all hands on deck packing parcels. I’ve even been out driving the pick-up truck. 

“But the main focus has been to keep in touch with [retail] customers and help where we can. It’s a tough time for shops.”

Martin visited many stores through the summer when Covid restrictions were eased. “I ring before I go and the general consensus was everyone was happy to see me because it gave them a sense of normality.

“It’s lucky my customers have been able to keep trading,” added Martin, acknowledging that British Horse Feeds supplies mainly ‘essential’ retailers permitted to open during lockdowns. 

“We want to offer support to our customers – and a familiar face is worth a fortune, especially a smiley one like mine!” 

Driving business

Reps keep stores stocked up, they offer advice, bring news and views of the wider trade and drive business retailers’ way. They work hard for their trade customers because they want and need them to succeed. 

How the rep’s role will pan out in 2021 is a ‘wait and see’. Just now, the shops are missing their reps as much as the reps are missing going out to see them. 

Time to make that appointment?