Category management isn't exactly a dirty word but it's not debated with the same enthusiasm that it was ten years ago.Buyers and suppliers alike have stored up resentment about the concept. Complaints that it's unwieldy and time consuming, that categories can look the same in all stores, and that it doesn't deliver total category growth are often heard. Some smaller suppliers often feel excluded, as retailers continue to appoint favoured category captains (usually larger suppliers with lots of cash and resources) who supposedly help them with resources and analysis. But for all the criticism, it's clear that category management isn't out of favour, it's just evolving ­ an evolution initiated by both retailers and manufacturers who, despite their differences, acknowledge it still has a role to play in getting products effectively off the shelf. The IGD's recent Category Management Survey which studied 60 retailers and suppliers found that only 9% believed that category management had had its day while 80% disagreed, and 12% were unsure. Most agree the strategy improves sales/turnover, profitability, and trading relationships, creates customer satisfaction, and improves consumer understanding.They also believe it has a positive impact on their trading relationships. Companies even view it as an integral part of business planning or strategy. But the survey found that nearly half thought implementation in store let down category management work; 53% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Many felt they had limited involvement, that there was limited practical application or that it was the jurisdiction of a specialist department. IGD programme manager Michala Jarvis comments: "There's an industry-wide implementation fault in pursuit of an ideal virtually everyone agrees on. From our research it seems retailers don't know what's going on in their stores. None had a measurement system to get a handle on how category management was being implemented." According to the IGD, there can also be a dependence on processes, with people believing that unless they follow the process to the letter they're not doing it right. Jarvis says shop staff are often too busy to check or say the initiatives aren't practical: "Manufacturers need to gain an understanding of how a store works, and retailers need to try initiatives like Tesco which has a store manager seconded into its frozen food category to give advice." It seems that retailers and manufacturers are both claiming a desire to simplify the process and work to tailor plans to individual chains. They admit that processes had bogged them down in the past and that staff are now getting back to basics and focusing on the consumer. Simon Galkoff, trading manager at Sainsbury, is keen to highlight its harmonious work with Coca-Cola, along with its new way of working after the chain widely acknowledged its old practices had proved fairly disastrous. He says its new approach to category management means the chain has benefited from more collaborative relationships, seen more satisfied shoppers and increases in categories such as Food of the World which experienced turnover growth of 15% last year. "We're running more efficient promotions and are beginning to share joint category goals," claims Galkoff. To make category managment work, Sainsbury learnt that information needed to be simpler, and that it needed to understand the motivation of shoppers on different shopping trips. Rather than doing five different plans for a category, the retailer now has just one, and applies what it learns to the other areas. "We can get final results in six months, whereas it used to take two years." But Galkoff adds: "Everyone has to understand what you're doing. If Mary on the checkout doesn't understand it, a lot of our work can be wasted." Its happy partner, Kieran Hemsworth, head of category planning at Coca-Cola, says the firm now works using a much more pragmatic approach. "We've learnt not to rely on a single process but to alter our approach to the retailer." Even Marks and Spencer, which avoided category management until a year ago, is reaping the benefits. Meat, fish and poultry buyer Richard Flint describes the chain as a "gatecrasher to the category management party". He admits that before it adopted the principles, parts of the supply chain had broken down. "Now we have total control of products and should be in the best position to make sure consumers get what they want." In its category management review, the chain told suppliers it wanted them to come together to drive the brand harder, so that different categories were pulled together to meet consumer needs. Subsequently, M&S made shopping easier for consumers by grouping products in "shopping by occasion" areas and giving them more information about why they were paying more for quality. "We're now directly comparing our products with other people's." Flint says as a result of implementing category management, the sales decline in Food To Go had been arrested and seen a 14% volume gain. "Every category we worked in developed double digit growth." However, he is critical of category captains, as is ­ surprisingly ­ Tony Durham, instore innovation manager at Procter & Gamble. Durham reveals: "I can understand why retailers want category captains for over-stretched buyers, but access to data is too often restricted to these firms. If you want category management to improve, you need to find a way to get more inclusive results. That way you get different perspectives on the data." He believes there is too much pressure on companies to get instant results. And in the rush to achieve this, shoppers could be misled or shopper behaviour could be forced, which would create a long-term negative result. "You need to lead them so they feel they're not being tricked. Shoppers like to be thought of as a smart shopper'." Durham suggests reassessing categories and layouts as a way to drive growth, as he believes store layouts are often historical. "We have a paper aisle because the buying team have been allocated space based on sales turnover. Toilet roll and kitchen roll are not associated, apart from being learnt shopper behaviour. It would be more profitable to put facial tissues next to cold remedies." This historical bias is something L'Oréal's category management director Caroline Bird is keen to challenge. She says too many decisions are made using historical data and that retailers need encouragement to promote categories such as make up. She cites the successful example of Asda's hypermarket store in Patchway where L'Oréal revamped and enlarged the section, which increased its share from 3.3% to 3.6% of store sales as a result. She adds: "It's impossible to ask consumers to express their future agenda. The only way forward is for retailers to trust suppliers, even if it means breaking the rules." n {{FEATURES }}