Editorial: Hunting the Elusive Retailer

By Len Monheit

In their search for ‘big game’, more and more ingredient suppliers and manufacturers believe the once populous and active species known as ‘retailer’ might be on a perilous population decline. In reality, judging by recent sightings (or lack thereof), the species is either in hiding (or hibernation), or has become autonomous and disconnected from events.

This past week, as I returned from Canada’s largest natural products event, the Canadian Health Food Association’s (CHFA) Expo East, I could not help but wonder at several events, targeted primarily at a retailer audience, where the traffic in this category might have been barely decent, but certainly not great.

Many manufactures in this industry rely on the retailer channel for growth. Ingredient suppliers are, in increasing numbers, trying to engage retailers with product education and category defining messages. And if the retailers are truly industry’s most effective gatekeepers, then interacting and engaging with them is of paramount strategic importance, not only for individual companies, but also for the associations and not-for-profits. While I know that some of the trade associations are involved in roadshows and regional events specifically to engage this population, I can’t help but wonder what the ideal dynamic, not only for an initial interaction with retailers (and pharmacy owners too) should be, but also how to envelop them into a community on an ongoing basis. With the exception possibly of Expo West, tradeshow participation just isn’t cutting it. Past motivation for tradeshow participation might have been show specials, but the market, economics and the Internet have all made show-only specials a thing of the past.

So what’s the formula?

Let’s start by asking what the value proposition is. On the spot interactions with principals and distributors can be extremely valuable – don’t get me wrong. Some of the educational sessions are also well attended, so presumably there’s a strong proposition there. But if there are thousands of retailers in both Canada and the United States that are not engaged in some manner, then what a huge opportunity is being missed. Obviously either the value proposition is not strong enough for this group, or they don’t even know what they’re missing. Or perhaps some of them feel that visits from local representatives are good enough for them to run their businesses and make buying decisions. (That prospect, I must confess, scares me a bit.)

As in many things in the business world, this situation calls for baseline analysis and tools assessment. Simply tweaking current activities probably won’t get the job done. The Canadian Health Foods Association is about to start regional roadshows to gather some information and in this, I think they are onto something. Without this critical point feedback, how can a solution be found? Business dynamics and pressure points continue to evolve as do communication mechanisms. Current and future technologies obviously factor into solutions, but these must be practical and useful, and meet audience needs, not just be simply technology for technology’s sake.

A couple aspects emerge clearly when one considers this issue, and it dovetails in with themes I’ve spoken about before. The role of industry events is changing, and their value proposition must be continuously rethought. Second, value chain communication continues to change both in technique and content. Success in managing value chain relationships will go to those organizations that understand this clearly.

As a call to action and call to comment, I’d really like to hear specifically from industry retailers on this issue. How do they feel about the information they receive, the events they attend? What would they like to see (and hear)? What works and what doesn’t? Why?

Look forward to hearing from you.

Retailers comments please.
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