On the Road Again

Here we are in midsummer, the time of year when suppliers are pressing to obtain critical year-end orders. Field salespeople are on the road again. But we hear the same cautions we’ve been hearing for years. There are a declining number of traveling salespeople—fewer people want to deal with the travails of the road. Traveling is becoming more dangerous. There are fewer retailers, and they’re now farther apart. Retailers are reluctant to make appointments. And suppliers are asking if orders obtained on the road will offset costs of salaries, travel, insurance, fuel, and hotels.

All this is true and has been for a while. Many companies have cut out road sales, combined territories, leaned more heavily on sales generated at trade shows, or beefed up home-office support. Those selling to the major chains have long used dedicated home-office salespeople to manage their accounts, but this has not been true of companies selling to independents. They have depended more heavily on trade shows and established customer relations to further their business.

Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the age of jewelry salespeople traveling the road? I hope not. There are distinct advantages. Suppliers have an opportunity to sell on the retailer’s home turf, where merchandising and buying decisions are best made. The salesperson can see the nature of the retailer’s business and how best to augment that business. And that information can be brought back to the home office.

That scenario may sound simple, but both retailer and supplier need to be far more proactive to make in-store sales most beneficial, especially these days. And it takes some thought to overcome the disadvantages noted above. Retailers need to plan days to see lines. One very good retailer I spoke to has “appointment days” and feels it’s important to see new lines all the time. He’s right. Such planning means developing good merchandising matrices that deliver critical information on what is selling, what categories and price points need a boost, which lines are doing well and which not, and having room for bringing in exciting new collections when they’re found.

Retailers need to be forthright with suppliers about what they need before inviting them to the store. To begin with, answer the phone! Have someone in the store responsible for taking new vendor calls and for setting out requirements. For example, ask for, via e-mail, a description of the product and price ranges, supplier’s terms and support offered, and images and prices. (If a supplier can’t at least do all that, then pass.) If images and prices look interesting, two or three sample pieces on memo for inspection could follow. Quality and workmanship could be checked firsthand. (Here again, if a supplier cannot send first-class pieces to a prospective retailer, pass.) The supplier could then also send press kits, brochures, etc., that further describe their advantages. If all that checks out, then all the drawbacks of a field trip to the store are offset by a maximized chance of success.

Retailers also should give thought to safety. A salesperson walking into a store with a line is too easily spotted by thieves. Perhaps there is a better way to set up a sales meeting. A retailer could see representative samples of different design groups and the balance as images on a laptop or catalog. A supplier should be able to easily develop a presentation that uses live pieces and images coherently. Perhaps the live pieces could be sent by courier the day before the presentation, if that is practical.

Such an approach requires active cooperation between supplier and retailer, but the advantages are clear. It saves time and cost for everyone. It also means that both sides need to take a professional and thorough approach to finding customers or sources.

In-store sales presentations by suppliers should not go away.

benjanow@gmail.com