Phil Beechinor, managing director of Alexander in Worthing reflects on how the Covid pandemic changed the way that suppliers communicate with their and retailers, and how things are still not quite back to how they used to be
Being an independent retailer of fitted kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms, we have many suppliers. So, maintaining relationships with household names to niche specialists, and everything in between, has given us a real insight into communications across the industry.
Since the pandemic, the relationship between retailers and suppliers has changed dramatically, but communication is as important as ever.
I have been at Alexander since 1994, in which time the entire world has changed many times over. Gone are the days when a regional representative was the sole point of communication for a supplier.
I can recall numerous relationships from my early days at Alexander, where our relationship with the representative was a mirror of the one we had with the supplier, because they were the only real contact we had. It was only at some of the most established suppliers that we would know the directors’ faces.
In my time, we’ve had fantastic representatives who I’m delighted to call friends. We would have quarterly meetings to discuss sales targets and product updates and, importantly, to build working relationships with those who were key to our operations. It was also great to get the latest on our competitors, and representatives are a key part of keeping us abreast of what’s going on in the wider industry.
During the pandemic, a lot changed in everyday life, but it did feel like there was a shift from the status quo to a more impersonal style of communication.
People’s health and supporting the valiant key workers were of paramount importance, and with many staff on furlough and with all the restrictions, it was impossible for suppliers to retain ‘as usual’ communication, which is, of course, understandable.
With suppliers recovering from the pandemic and reinvesting, the more traditional communications haven’t quite got back to where we used to be.
But, at the risk of sounding nostalgic, how can they have?
Many suppliers have had financial concerns due to dramatic price rises. So, rebuilding in a sustainable way was naturally paramount – as frustrating as it was for many of us retailers at times.
The appliance supply debacle had a significant impact on our business, although companies did eventually let us know how bad things were. I guess it’s all water under the bridge now, but I cannot believe there wasn’t a better way to update us.
They say ‘don’t shoot the messenger’, but our customer service team and sales staff were constantly on the receiving end of a firing squad. Clients just didn’t understand how difficult it was for us, and they just thought we were incompetent.
Instead of the yearly roundups where a representitive would inform us of price increases, discontinuations and new products, we were inflicted with knee-jerk price rises and short-notice reductions in product offerings – normally via email instead of in person.
During the pandemic, a lot changed and it felt like there was a shift from the status quo to a more impersonal style of communication
As many of us use CRM for business operations, we were racing to keep our systems updated to ensure margin was maintained, as invariably manufacturers were slow to update their catalogues.
Thankfully, it has calmed down since. For some suppliers, communication has taken a backseat, but for others, it has remained a priority.
Monthly email newsletters have replaced face-to-face visits for some, while others are as insistent as ever about visiting us for quarterly meetings and so on.
I suppose it’s all part of the shift due to the pandemic, where online communication became the norm. This new way of working has its benefits, and we’ve embraced video calls and new technologies to an extent. While a blend of the old and the new is part of change, there is fundamentally a good way to communicate certain news with us retailers.
Minor changes and updates are fine to be delivered by newsletter or portal, but it is imperative that significant news is communicated to us in a personal manner.
I understand perfectly how difficult things have been over the past few years, but as someone once said, ‘it’s good to talk’.