Natural Foods Merchandiser
9 ways to improve your distributor relationships

9 ways to improve your distributor relationships

Industry experts share their advice for creating stronger partnerships with distributors to help you reach your store's goals. 

Building a better business doesn’t mean only focusing on your facility, equipment and marketing. You can find best-selling products, enhance product arrangement, reduce costs and ultimately boost your bottom line simply by investing in your relationships with your distributors.

Follow these expert-recommended steps to begin fostering a rapport that will help you reach your store goals and create a stronger business for tomorrow.


  1. Be an active participant.
    Distributors are more likely to provide great service if you uphold your end as a timely paying customer and avid communicator. Have a clear understanding of their policies and procedures so you can suggest improvements if needed. For example, we discussed return policies with distributors that weren’t allowing long-enough turnaround times to obtain credit for mis-picks and returns. They gladly extended their deadlines.
  2. Show your support.
    Attend tabletop shows to support distributors and make some good deals. In addition, visit their operations. They can share with you their technology, cleanliness and personal approaches.
  3. Realize it’s a two-way street.
    The relationship is only as good as both sides make it. We count on distributors to forecast inventory based on trends and past purchases, as well as to have goods in stock when we place orders. We’re willing to try new items, buy in on published deals and even help move out slower items if the price is right. In exchange, we expect timely notification of price increases, out-of-stocks and discontinued items. As this relationship grows, we also anticipate the volume discounting and terms to get better.

Mo Payette, Chief operating officer and director of purchasing at Mother’s Market & Kitchen in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Retail consultant

  1. Capitalize on services.
    Find out the full array of services your distributor provides to determine which will profit your business and to compare the distributor’s costs to those of third-party companies. A good example of a distributor service: planogram development, which offers schematics for product layout, inventory control and size. Your distributor compares your current assortment to its recommended assortment. You can increase your sales in a category by switching inventory to better-selling items. 
  2. Negotiate lower prices.
    By showing that you can enhance your variety or increase the number of units you sell per week and per year, you gain negotiating leverage. Both you and your distributor will make more sales and profits. Also, you can influence total annual shipment costs by increasing the amount of goods you ship from a distributor, and then coming to an agreement on prices.
  3. Plan ahead.
    Building a successful relationship with a distributor means first assessing your store’s goals. Do you want to grow sales or profits, reduce costs, enhance your strengths in a competitive environment or improve results within defined consumer segments? Align distributor offerings with your goals, and then develop a plan to conduct your negotiation.

John Smrekar, President of Instore Marketing 21 in Orange County, Calif.


  1. Communicate openly.
    At trade shows, UNFI meets with retail advisory boards, which let retailers communicate ways in which we can work together to ensure better service in trucking, products or sales. This open forum also allows retailers to chat with one another about challenges and solutions. UNFI has a Facebook page where retailers can post comments and UNFI can keep them updated on new items, current trends and events.
  2. Get to know your salesperson.
    UNFI has expanded its retail services team. This team, which I am part of, assists retailers in resetting stores, planogramming, category management, product knowledge, training and more. The crew consists of former retailers from both specialty stores and natural markets.
  3. Ask for help.
    UNFI has launched many new programs and websites that are channel specific, and has added resources to assist retailers. Something as simple as aligning category review schedules could save hours and days of work. If you need it, ask for it. Maybe your request is already in development or is something that can be developed. We are partners, and the more resources we build together, the better the industry will become for everyone.

Mary Jo Marks, Retail training and education department manager for Providence, R.I.-based UNFI

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