Working with difficult category managers

Category managers can have a significant impact on a supplier’s business. They determine who will be on the shelf and which items will be promoted. Category managers are people too and they are all different. Some are great to work with and others can be a challenge. Regardless of the personality, you have to work with them.

Focus on the business

When you run up against a category manager who wants to be difficult it is important to focus on the business. Don’t take it personally. Often we spend time trying to assess why they are so tough to work with or that they have an issue with “me.”  Chances are they are trying to do their job and one way to do that is to push you and challenge your business. Their approach might be different than yours but try to focus on the business, not the personal.

Present a clear plan

Often the gap starts to widen between a category manager and a supplier when there is a perceived or real performance issue. This happens when you have a different definition ofsuccess or what the original objectives were. In your business where you have challenges such as weather or labour, your ability to service 100 per cent of the order may drop to 80 per cent. The category manager has the belief that anything less than 92 per cent is a real problem so they start to be difficult to work with. If you had agreed on the number going into the season, then you have a benchmark to judge yourself against. The conversation is then about the gap as opposed to letting the retailer down.

When you are presenting the plan, focus on the basics. Once you get this right and begin to build the relationship, you can move on to more complicated issues.

Determine the cause of the issue

The best method of improving a bad situation is to determine what caused it in the first place.  Ask the questions and figure out why they are not happy with you or your business. Often a conversation will alleviate a lot of problems. Technology is great but it does not always replace a conversation on the phone or in person. If you are not able to speak directly with the category manager then try one of the other people at the retailer. Often they will be able to help you understand the situation.

Perhaps they are just busy

Category managers have a lot of pressure and demands. It is possible they are tough to deal with because they are just too busy. Find out what is causing them pain and assess if you can alleviate any of it. Often you can provide information, change lead times or communicate in a different manner. Offer to change things to make them better.

Be proactive

When you are working with a difficult category manager it is easy to take the approach “no news is good news.” When the phone calls and emails are always negative it is tough to see it any other way. My experience has been that if you are proactive and initiate the conversation it is better, than to wait for them. If there is an issue, get it on the table, find a resolution and move on. The only way this will happen is if you are proactive. As tough as it is, pick up the phone and get the conversations started.

Category managers are people and we all have bad days or get frustrated with certain issues. You have to continue to work on the relationship and get it to the point where you can trust each other.  If you have some stories and ideas about difficult category managers or if you have any questions you can contact me at


Sobeys Extra opens in Tantallon, Nova Scotia

Sobeys opened a new Sobeys Extra store just outside Halifax in Tantallon. The store is similar to their model in Ontario and probably has its roots in Quebec. The fresh departments are very different from a traditional Sobeys with new fixtures, décor and focus. The selection is broad and there is a real determination to execute “Better Food for All.”

In the opening flyer they claim to have three chefs on staff.  This is an interesting investment to really reinforce the food positioning. There is no doubt the assortment of prepared foods is impressive. You can never judge a new format during the opening as every retailer puts in the resources to make it work. As a consumer I do hope that shoppers respond so that we continue to get this level of choice in the market. The biggest challenge for Sobeys will be to get the return from the investment.  If you are in the market, it is worth a visit to see where Sobeys is going.


Store has a simple, yet effective message

During my days with Loblaw Co,  we worked with some great growers. Judy and Lee Thompson and their daughter Meghan at Forest Glen Greenhouses were some of the best. They really made an effort to understand the needs of the retailer and they built a significant business on these principles. I was in a store last week and this sign caught my eye.

Often we believe things need to be pre-printed and done by an advertising agency. This sign was done in-store and the message is simple. We have a great local grower who takes pride in growing poinsettias for you to enjoy in your home. This says more than the item and price to me.


Publish date: 
Monday, February 1, 2016

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