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Retail teams should be finding ways to support small and medium-sized businesses rather than creating barriers

Anyone who has sat through negotiation training will have heard of ‘the clock’. At each hour on the clockface, a different type of negotiation is represented. From the extremes of bartering, hard bargaining and haggling on one side, to relationship building and joint problem solving on the other.

Thankfully since Covid, it feels like the UK food and drink industry has raced forward in time to focus less on the types of hard-nosed negotiations it’s long been known for, and more on collaboration. It’s a welcome change for everyone.

But there’s one frustrating exception that remains: access to knowledge.

This hangover of pre-pandemic ‘you versus us’ attitudes sees retailers secretively guarding information like it’s a trade secret – when in reality, sharing it could make everyone’s lives a little easier. I’m not talking about the details of supplier agreements here, or what’s going on in private label product labs. It’s information that has no commercial sensitivity, but plenty of practical value.

For SMEs and startups, this can be particularly challenging to navigate, as they’re fighting to secure their first few listings or develop those initial relationships with buyers. Keeping this knowledge locked away is a non-collaborative way of working that seems both outdated and entirely unnecessary. Plus, it’s a massive own goal for retailers.

Given the huge value brought to the industry by SMEs, every business should be proactively looking for ways to make life easier for them, rather than adding in new hurdles. Small and medium-sized businesses represent more than three-quarters (78%) of all food companies in the UK, provide a quarter (26%) of the jobs and create nearly a fifth (17%) of total turnover. More than that, they fuel a disproportionate volume of the kind of product innovation that keeps consumers engaged, and retailer ranges fresh and exciting. Retail teams should be finding ways to support them rather than creating barriers.

Take range review dates. Throughout the year, category buyers will sit down together and chat through how well a current range is working, as well as consider new product submissions. For an SME or startup, being part of that discussion can be a make or break moment.

Yet, all too often I hear that retailers refuse to publish their range review calendars, citing the risk of negotiations being undermined or extra disruption. This feels nonsensical given that the real disruption comes from the fact they then have thousands of brands chasing them 365 days of the year, trying to find out when they need to be ready to pitch. One of the brands we work with told us they have had to email a buyer no less than 36 times before they received a response. Cue constant overwhelm for already busy buyers, and immense stress for the brands themselves.

The same goes for buyer names and emails. Securing the right contact details is practically impossible without a private investigator’s licence, and it doesn’t leave buyers’ inboxes any less full. Instead, it creates more nuisance for them across other channels. Brands begin to raid their LinkedIn profile, show up in their DMs on Twitter, or – I imagine worst of all – show up unannounced at the retailer’s reception desk begging for them to hand over the right address.

It creates so much noise at a time when none of us need more of it. At the end of the day, we’re one single chain, and the easiest way to create value for everyone is by keeping those links strong and working together. Looking ahead to ongoing labour shortages, the cost of living crisis and the pressures of global events on that same supply chain, this mentality is only going to become more and more important too.

So share the range review calendars. Publish the buyer’s names. And let’s all get back to the job of trying to work together to get through this incredibly challenging period before the clock strikes midnight.