So the two of you have met up a few times, enjoyed each others' company, and shared some intimate secrets. The relationship appears to be blossoming when suddenly, without warning, they stop calling and you're left wondering where it all went wrong. Why has the supplier rep left you out in the cold?

Despite 92% of c-store retailers being open to direct sales calls, well over half (65%) are receiving less visits than they used to, according to a recent Knowledge Store survey. This finding mirrors the frustration aired in C-Store's products survey, (C-Store, March 6, 2009) in which we asked 100 independent retailers which manufacturers' reps they found most helpful and a shocking 34% answered 'none'. C-Store decided to delve further.

"The service we get from reps is generally quite good, but we don't tend to get that many visiting - I never see any confectionery reps," sighs Doug Gill of Doug 'n' Di's in Stockport, Cheshire. "With one, I've had two-year gaps between visits in the past. They used to have a brilliant rep who visited us regularly, but then he left and it went to the dogs."

Doug also sings the praises of a snack supplier's reps. "They came round about three years ago with special stands to display their crisps and they were outstanding. They also advised us to put the crisps next to the drinks cabinet. Sales went up by about 20% and the drinks sales went up, too."

But Doug claims they rarely visit now. "I haven't seen a rep for months. It would be great if more reps visited - just once every three months would be enough."

Frankmarsh Stores in Barnstaple, Devon, has a similar problem, according to owner Lesley Brown. "We receive reasonably good service from the reps that do visit, but the main problem is that we don't see much of them in the South West," she says. "When we first started out eight years ago there were many more reps on the road."

Dennis and Linda Williams, who run Premier Broadway in Edinburgh, also highlight the inconsistency of visits as a problem. "I've been nipping manufacturers' ears when I attend PR Action Group board meetings, asking why they haven't got more reps on the road," says Dennis. "How do you get in touch with a company if they haven't got a rep?"

Dennis is hopeful that companies will gradually realise their mistake and return to putting reps back out on the road. "The big companies aren't going to get a lot more growth from supermarkets, but there are opportunities in the convenience sector," he says.

He believes that the number of rep visits has dropped because manufacturers have been trying to cut costs. "Firms have looked at their balance sheets and ended up getting rid of reps. But this means that they lose touch with their grass roots, with people like us who know what's going on and what sells," he says. "I know it's an expense, but we all need one another at the end of the day. I could suggest things like changing packaging sizes or adding ring pulls to cans."

Mark Johnson, who owns Celebrations Off Licence in Stockport, Cheshire, agrees. "There are an awful lot of suppliers missing an opportunity by not visiting independents," he says. "It's a bit of give and take: they tell us about distribution and product range; and we give them feedback on how the market's running."

Linda Williams explains that advice given to c-stores can have a far greater effect than it would in the multiples. "Manufacturers can influence our business in a way that they can't with supermarkets. We don't have buyers that dictate price and quantity and tell us where products are going to go. If reps visit us and have a good enough proposition, or want to relay the fixture, then we'll let them do it."

She explains that the store had a very successful meeting with a Mars sales rep who made suggestions on how to improve the stor e's Pedigree Chum display. "Mars sent up a territory rep and we gave her our sales figures. She implemented a new planogram and our sales went up 13%."

Cadbury reps are also doing a good job, says Dave Chew, owner of Dave's Convenience Store in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. "We've had a rep since day one. I'm part of its Cadbury Display Money Maker scheme where you get points for display and promotion. Because they've kept it going for so long it's effective; other schemes tend to come and go.

"The cigarette companies are efficient, too. They take trainees out with experienced reps so that they can pick up the job easier, and this is very effective," claims Dave.

Imperial does a great job, agrees Doug. "The rep is here every four weeks and he gives us more support now than ever. For example, he might throw 20 or 40 cigarettes in with an outer, or let us buy half an outer to get a new product going."

JTI (Gallaher) reps are very easy to talk to, adds Lesley. "They are keen to update you on what's going on with legislation and display."

Linda claims that having a fresh pair of eyes look over the store can work wonders. "When you're in the same environment every day you don't see the things that might be obvious to someone else," she says.

Dave agrees that reps can really turn things around. "You need reps otherwise you may not find out about new products and promotions," he says.

Lesley agrees: "We're independent so we don't have the benefit of a head office so it's important to know what's going on from the companies themselves."

It seems that most reps are doing a good job, but just aren't visiting enough stores. It's not cheap to travel around the UK and it's hard work to keep up-to-date with the numerous initiatives that retailers are embarking on. But retailers are demanding that manufacturers invest more time and money in their sales force. As Dennis says: "You can sit in an office and have a degree, but at the end of the day you've got to go out and do the practical work otherwise you'll never know what it's all about."
Retailer survey
Do you accept direct sales?

Yes 92

No ................................................................8

How many direct sales visits do you receive a week?

1 to 9 89

10 to 19 4

Don't know 7

Are you receiving more

or less sales visits than a year ago?

Less 65

More 13

Don't know 22

Source: Knowledge Store, survey of

100 convenience retailers in January 2009
The manufacturers' view:
"We've got the biggest FMCG force within the c-store sector. We cover every postcode in the UK and visit each store every five-and-a-half weeks on average.

"With all the restrictions on tobacco communications the face-to-face market is vitally important, so we spend a lot of time equipping our reps with the latest knowledge. They are impartial category consultants, rather than brand consultants, so it's not unusual for them to de-list some of their own products because the industry is very regional.

"When we train reps, they are taught how to interact with retailers and understand different cultures. For example, some cultures don't want to shake hands as they view it as rude. Understanding such issues helps to build up trust between rep and retailer.

"We give lots of advice on range and legislation. A huge part of our job is to keep retailers in line with the law. If you've got the wrong stock on shelf you could really get into trouble.

"The level of trust we have been able to build up would be very difficult to do if you didn't see retailers face-to-face. You can't underestimate the importance of visiting stores that sell your product."

Tel: 0117 963 6636
The manufacturers' view:
"For our convenience and independent division we have 330 reps out on the road on a daily basis. We look at those stores that have a good turnover of confectionery, but also those who need to develop this category.

"Without independent retailers we wouldn't have much of a business, so it's vital for us to have a good relationship and we invest a lot in it - they are certainly not overlooked.

"We work with cash and carries and ask for lists of top-performing retailers. We visit them and if they're open to advice then we add them to our core base and visit every four to six weeks. Sometimes you get graduates who are really keen and one of the key things we teach them on induction is that we're only experts in confectionery, not running a convenience store!

"Our reps help with displaying confectionery to get the most from it and also talk about our campaigns so the retailers can stock up on core products. We also provide some stores with equipment, such as units designed to display bitesize packs at different points around the store. We appreciate that retailers can get conflicting advice from manufacturers, but we advise on the category as a whole."

Tel: 01844 262517
The manufacturers' view:
"I have 11 directly employed customer sales staff, plus an additional 50 reps supplied by field marketing firm Reach. Half of them focus on cash and carries and the others work directly with unaffiliated c-stores. On average, we call on 6,000 stores a month. That's up to 15,000 stores in a six-week period, but it's quality over quantity. We can't visit all stores, so we tend to go for the larger ones that have a grocery offer. We certainly aren't cutting back on our calls - if anything, we're putting more into them.

"With a lot of symbol group operators, category advice is conveyed centrally and you begin to see the store layouts following suit. These guys are leading the way. In contrast, for a lot of independent stores this info isn't available. They often have too many products, or the wrong kind of brand. When we engage with such stores we can look at the local area and do basic catchment work. We can help them make their stores easier to navigate.

"We're always talking about best sellers, most appropriate pack sizes and merchandising. We try to avoid single brand selling as it doesn't have any longevity. Instead, we'll come in with consumer insight-driven research. We can see double-digit uplifts simply through adopting this kind of approach."