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    Why Can't Independents, Wholesalers, and Manufacturers Get Along?

    NGA session provides forum to discuss barriers to collaboration.

    LAS VEGAS -- A session at the National Grocers Association Convention here addressed an issue that many independent convenience stores also face: the growing distance between independent retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers.

    With the sales call fast fading as a primary communications tool, independent retailers and their wholesaler and manufacturer partners have their work cut out for them in trying to maintain strategic, collaborative relationships. That was the main conclusion of panelists in a session on "Barriers to Industry Collaboration," held here yesterday.

    The panelists plumbing the problem from the podium were Steve Sholtes, manager, industry affairs, Procter & Gamble Co.; Ron Rehkopf, president/CEO, Rehkopf Family Food Stores; and Steve Heggelke, senior vice president, merchandising/procurement, Bozzutos, Inc.; and Mark Boyer, president of consulting firm PMG, LLC.

    The session was spun off new retail research conducted by PMG, which indicated that 85 percent of independents have eight or less hours per week to spend fielding sales calls. While a significant number of independent retailers in the study admitted that one-to-one sales calls are nowadays impractical, however, they were split on how best to otherwise communicate with their wholesaler and manufacturer partners.

    E-mail appears to be an acceptable and often preferred tool of communication for some activities, panelists agreed. However, it doesn't replace all face-to-face communications.

    "We've all accepted that face-to-face sales calls will go by the wayside," said Rehkopf. "But we're in danger of losing relationships without having that interaction. It's a challenge we have to address."

    Procter & Gamble's Sholtes agreed. "Discussions like the one here today are important to address the problem," he said.

    Sholtes encouraged industry players to think about creative ways to get information into independent retailers' stores. The Internet and tools like Webcasts have a lot of potential for the future, he noted.

    Rehkopf pointed out that smaller retailers at times feel they are not granted manufacturers' full attention, or are too quickly being pigeonholed by assumptions of what their needs are.

    "Manufacturers have to get away from only looking at store volume," Rehkopf said. "They have to understand that we are facing a lot of competitors in our markets, and that we carry some products that the competitors don't carry. Manufacturers tend to categorize smaller-volume stores as only being interested in a certain product. But we want to hear about all their products."

    Boyer encouraged independents to set the level of expectations for their trading partners. "Let them know whether you prefer e-mail or another form of communication," he suggested.

    Wholesaler Heggelke suggested one simple yet important solution: "Read your mail." He said he often hears from retailers that they don't have time to read their mail, yet that's where they might be missing some important information from their trading partners.

    -- Jenny McTaggart, senior editor, Progressive Grocer

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