Overworked, stressed and burnt out at 35? As the multiples pile on the pressure, Elaine Watson talks to the people at the coal face.

Over at Tesco and the Co-operative Group, buyers have in turn seen their in-trays expand as responsibility for buying at new acquisitions T&S Stores and Alldays now lies on their shoulders.

Another manufacturer says the fact buyers move on so quickly “suggests they are not the real custodian of the category and simply filter information and opportunities for their superiors”. And increasingly, these senior decision-makers are “inaccessible, especially if you are a small supplier like us”. He adds: “Buyers are now having fewer appointments than ever; they take fewer calls and rely on the flat yet functional medium of e-mail to sort the wheat from the chaff. If they are the only buyer in their category, it creates enormous strain for them and those trying to reach them.”

Nobody likes change. It’s stressful and unsettling, but it’s a fact of life, especially in the buying department at a major retail chain. But when is change counterproductive? And is the pressure of having to extract savings in a deflationary environment driving relationships to breaking point? We asked those at the sharp end - the account managers and the buyers themselves - whether the buyer/supplier interface is changing. We also asked whether it makes sound commercial sense to switch graduates around buying departments faster than greased lightning or whether, as some manufacturers claim, supermarkets are simply paranoid buyers will get too close to their supply base.

One thing is certain, things are pretty stressful in the multiples’ buying departments. Not only are buyers under intense pressure to extract savings in a increasingly cut-throat and competitive environment, but they are also bang in the middle of a wave of consolidation that has already slashed hundreds of buying jobs and will potentially cost a whole lot more if, as expected, Safeway is taken over by a rival operator.

Whether Safeway falls into the hands of Morrisons, Asda, Tesco or Sainsbury, the first people to go will be its buyers, point out the recruitment agencies. “Developing long-term plans to drive category sales is not top of the priority list for the average Safeway buyer at the moment,” says one. And at Sainsbury, buyers have spent the last few months burdened with the knowledge some of their number will be axed as part of the cost-cutting review at head office. Sainsbury insists it has “maintained a high level of satisfaction in our buying team” despite the recent upheavals. And an insider claims the recent arrival of Stephen Nelson as trading director has already boosted morale on the trading floor.

Nevertheless, one dairy supplier says those buyers that haven’t been going around looking like “rabbits stuck in headlights” have been wondering how they are going to cope with taking on the workload of those who don’t make the cut.

As a senior buyer at one multiple observes wryly, categories are getting bigger and workloads are only moving in one direction - up. “The pace of change in this business has meant that the majority of staff have seen increased workloads either ongoing or project-based, which have resulted in an increase to working hours and stress.”

Steve Simmance, MD at recruitment agency the Simmance Partnership, confirms that individual buying areas and responsibilities have increased in recent years. “I have interviewed a lot of buyers and buying controllers lately. Their deepest frustration was the sheer volume and velocity of workload.”

Buyers we surveyed at all of the multiples said they felt under more pressure, in many cases because they had not been in their roles for long and were struggling to get up to speed. As one observes: “It has become common practice to move buyers between product groups within an organisation more frequently.”

Opinions are divided as to whether the churn is driven by accident or design. Industry consolidation means opportunities in buying management have fallen significantly over the last 10 to 15 years, says Simmance. “However, my feeling is that retailers are increasingly uncomfortable, if not paranoid, about the depth of relationships buyers build up with suppliers.”

The best way of dealing with it, he claims, is to keep them on the move - to keep relationships on a certain footing. “Ten years ago, the average tenure for a knowledge worker [trained professional] was nearly six years. Today it’s 2.7 years. There are no hard and fast stats for buyers, but from my experience, buyers’ lifecycles in one role are probably 40% less than that,” Simmance adds.

Retailers such as Sainsbury and Safeway confirm they move buyers around every 12 to 18 months. And Philip Hutchinson at recruitment consultants Pursuit NHA says less than two years is now “pretty typical” for the shelf life of a buyer in a particular category. But he insists there are sound commercial reasons for keeping them on their toes: “This keeps the buyer/supplier interface fresh, so that you can get a fresh perspective on a category.” As for supplier gripes about young, inexperienced buyers, he is scathing. “It’s a little different with say, wine, but how much does a buyer really need to know about making biscuits? All he needs to know about is profit margins and doing deals.”

Not surprisingly, those in the supplier community disagree. Alf Carr at the British Frozen Food Federation says that while you don’t need a degree in agriculture to buy cauliflower, it helps if you know when it’s in season. “I still get calls from producers aghast at buyers’ lack of knowledge of the whole of the supply chain in their category. If there is a problem with availability, for example, the attitude is often, ‘well it’s your problem pal’. I remember one retailer that did a bogof on peas well out of season, and then couldn’t understand why he ran out of stock,” he adds.

Another common moan from suppliers is that the constant churn among buyers can make it hard to forge meaningful business relationships, particularly when buyers are being asked to adopt a more aggressive negotiating style.

“Retailers are always having a go at us for changing account managers, but they change their buyers every year,” says one supplier in the non-food area. “And then there are the ones they send in as Rottweilers to spend three to four months, extract some savings, shaft the category, and then leave everyone else to pick up the pieces.”

The problem facing all buyers at the moment, adds a major chilled foods supplier, is that they are operating in a deflationary environment. “The attitude is, I’ve got to make this much in savings and I have less than 18 months to make my mark. And some of them tend to resort to clumsy threats of delisting and so on. They aren’t going to be around long enough to worry about the effects of their decisions on the long-term health of the category.”

At the same time, manufacturers argue that initiatives such as online auctions, which replace the cut and thrust of negotiation with a two-hour show buyers can sit back and watch on their PCs, are depersonalising the buyer/supplier interface.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is a moot point, but all sides agree relationships are now far more professional, and deals are done at the office, not at the races. “There was a sea-change when Wal-Mart took over Asda,” says one own label sales director. “Everyone has tightened up on corporate hospitality. Nowadays you can’t take a buyer to the pub unless he gets it signed off with a senior director.”

Mind you, given the pressure they are under, very few buyers or suppliers have the time to go to the pub these days anyway.
Workloads moving in only one direction

Aghast at lack of knowledge