This is a transcription of a podcast I did with Mark Mitchell on how to have a successful line review with big boxes like Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can choose to listen or read this.
“I’ve seen some surprisingly large companies to be at a loss for how to approach a line review.”
Hi, this is Mark Mitchell from Wizard Strategy. In this episode of my podcast, we’re going to talk about big boxes and line reviews. I find that many building material manufactures do a poor job of line reviews with Lowe’s and Home Depot. I’ve seen some surprisingly large companies to be at a loss for how to approach a line review. They just go through the motions with no real idea of what to do.
I’ve also seen companies spend an enormous amount of time and resources to try and impress the big box without any real content or thinking. Then there are the smaller companies who aren’t very well equipped to do an effective line review, as effective as they could.
We are going to take some of the mystery out of the line review and how you how to get the outcomes you want.
“My guest today is Greg Bonsib”
My guest today is Greg Bonsib, who’s Vice President of Marketing at General Tools and author of great podcast Channel Instincts. Greg and I have worked together for a number of years when he was in senior marketing positions at Owens Corning, Rubbermaid, and Sentry Safe.
Greg and I have been involved in a number of line reviews over the years as Greg is on the client side, working directly with big box account managers preparing the presentations and participating in the reviews, I thought Greg would be a great person to interview about line reviews. Welcome, Greg.
Thanks, Mark. It’s great to be here with you today talking about line reviews. Line reviews are really a nerve-wracking experience for most building product manufactures that they create uncertainty and that the worst they create fear which misses the point on a line review completely. So rather than fearing the line review, manufactures should welcome the opportunity and the chance to educate the buyer and set themselves apart from the competition.
Biggest Mistake in Line Reviews
That’s great. Greg, what do you see as the biggest mistake building materials manufactures make in line reviews?
In line reviews, understanding what the merchant needs to win, it is critical as to why you think you’re the best solution. Sadly, too many buyers tell me that what they want is someone who understands their challenges, not just another product pitch. As a manufacturer, those buyers have goals to build their categories, and they have to do more with less and whatever their decisions, they have to sell them successfully up to their leadership team. Which means not only do you have to deliver a compelling product proposition, you have to arm your merchant with the trends, data and research to show how and why what you believe possible is possible.
Good, advice, what’s the best way to prepare Greg?
How to Prepare for Line Reviews
I think buyers want you to answer four questions in a product line. The first is, “am I winning or losing?” Educate me on the market. Add to the buyers knowledge. So who’s winning and why and far more importantly, who’s losing and why? Then how should I think about the category and my role as the retailer in it”.
The second thing would be, “what’s important to the shopper?” How do consumers shop the category, what’s important to them and why? Help me see the product trends and show me how I can take advantage of them?
And three, it’s the classic question, your buyer though is really saying, “I need newness and freshness, how can I offer my shoppers innovation for the product solutions. They are coming to my store with a to-do list that I need to be able to completely satisfy” That’s innovation as well basics. In the course as a retailer, I’m hoping I have a chance to be exclusive or at least get a head start on my competition.
Last,” how are you helping me succeed, as a buyer I have to increase my year over year prompts but that may not be their biggest driver”. You’d think sales are important but often they could be inventory or their margin requirements, and how buyers get there is by balancing many pieces across the entire department and again they don’t have unlimited resources, so they have to be very careful about how and why they change. Those four points sound easy and intuitive, but they’re fairly difficult I think, and it takes time and preparation to answer each one fully.
Yes, I can see that, how about, who all in the company should you pull together to help with this so that you get a broader perspective. I find if a person is the national account manager for a big box and they try to do it themselves, they’ll miss a lot of opportunities. So who all do you think should be involved in the planning?
The Line Review Team
Believe it or not, I still think that the account manager should lead the team because they’re the ones who are at the desk every day with that customer, and they know which one of those hot buttons pails, inventory or margins, might be the top direction to choose.
You also need to have someone who is deeply knowledgeable about the product, like a product manager, who can find the different nuances inside of the product line to make it successful and come to life for the retailer.
If there’s a research person on the team, the more the better because they can bring the insight of the retail market place as well as the shopper to the meeting and then it goes without saying that there needs to be a marketing person, Ideally a channel marketing person who sits between the product team and the sales team who can pull together the viewpoint of the company into a concise presentation that speaks to the concerns that the buyer has.
Great Greg, if you didn’t have that research person but yet you want to walk into the line review as the expert, and you want to teach the buyer something about what’s happening in your category whether it’s changed in styles or colors or whatever performance. What’s the best way a person without a research arm could go about pulling some of that information together?There are several different
There are several different approaches and don’t think that’s an unusual question before few teams do have that research person. The first way is to look at a trade association and see if they have any research available, even if it’s broad and general, to give some context to the conversations you want to have. Like how big is the market, is it growing or shrinking, and to be truly successful in differentiating yourself, you should reach outside to a research firm to do some specialized proprietary research to tell the story of your product line in a much finer detail.
The last is you can always reach out on the internet for syndicated research. It tends to be expensive, and it tends only to hit, I’ll call it, the highest points, but to be honest it’s what everybody else has bought too because they want to go in and say we’re part of a market this size and it’s growing at this pace. So the more sophisticated way to do it is to tip it to the proprietary research side and tell the story you want to tell about your market and your company rather than the big, broad strokes that everybody is trying to talk to.
I think that makes a lot of sense. One of the other things, Greg, that I see many times is that manufacturers are very singularly focused on convincing the buyer why they should buy their company and their product or more of their product and they kind of lose sight of helping the buyer with the category overall, literally recognizing there is a role for their competition in the category.
When I sat with a buyer, one of the big boxes, they were so frustrated because the companies that were pitching in line reviews to them were bringing product engineers to the table as opposed to product marketers`. They became so frustrated that they weren’t being given anything more than a product pitch which was really painting my product as best and it’s cheap so buy me.
What Big Boxes Want
That’s only part of the story; they were looking for people who could help them be more successful in their category and grow their sales and make them be successful as a retailer. So the end result was if you walked into a presentation not taking the point of view of the retailer they were going to be quick to dismiss you and that was going to reduce your opportunity to be successful on the shelf if you couldn’t have a plan to sell off the shelf.
OK, so the idea of stepping back, I think from the beginning where you recommend Greg, kind of put yourself in the shoes of the buyer and realize they have responsibility for a category not just your product. Is that correct?
That’s right; it’s the missing half of most of the equations of a line review which is basically looking at the problem from their perspective. They’re not in business to buy it from you, they’re in business to be more successful as a retailer, and it comes as a shock, even to me still, when decisions get made that seem counter intuitive simply because there was a piece to the puzzle that we didn’t have. That’s why planograms get broken between multiple competitors because they’re trying to get what’s best for them as opposed to what’s best for you.
Yes, what about what’s the role, if you will, or the importance of coming in and in the area of packaging or point of sale, either bringing ideas or listening to the suggestions of the buyer in the line review?
Listening to the suggestions of the buyer is one of the things that may actually be counter-intuitive in the sense that you think that you understand your product and your shopper better. But often what they’re bringing is the perspective of what worked with other categories and other manufacturers of best practice if you will and they’re trying to share their knowledge, not art direct but what’s trying to be done.
By the same token, if you’re able to walk in as a manufacturer with solid research that says “here’s the drivers of the category, here’s how the packaging reinforces those drivers at a product level and here’s how the specific packaging architecture out differentiate the product line in a good, better, best, perhaps, scenario, then it may become very easy to look at the buyer and say “hey, I have research that shows how the shopper is going to quickly de-select off the shelf” and then hone in on these items like item icons, for example, and choose the price point that sits for them. Buyers often have less room to argue and while they still can share their point of view you can back up yours with facts.
What About Online Sales
Excellent. What about as we see the big boxes trying to shift online. What part of the line review should include the discussion about online and how you can support their efforts?
Big boxes created their own separate e-com teams, and the online buyers didn’t have any connectivity to those that were working on the shelf. Those days are rapidly diminishing, and we’re getting more of one-marketing approach, or the same marketing messages that cross many different devices.
The fact that those retailers are now putting the responsibility of the entire category, regardless of the channels of which sold, under one buyer has changed the dynamic of the presentation in the line review dramatically, in the sense they want to see how your product line and your marketing messages are cohesive against that omni channel perspective.
They also are looking to use online as proving ground for new products as opposed to saying “well, I’ll try this in 100 stores” and go through the logistical nightmare, for them and you, as well as the cost, to try and do that.
So what you also have is a much richer marketing tool when you’re selling online. You can put a product up online, have fantastic packaging, hone your messaging and support with videos or PBX or whatever rich media tools you want to think about to make the story of that product come to life for the consumer and that’s how you’re able to make an even easier move in the future from new product to on the shelf without having the risk necessarily of trying to sell it in the line review as an unproven idea. You can prove it online first.
Excellent, excellent. What about, I’ll use the word, lobbying or suggesting out of category displays like end caps or encouraging them to feature your product on their website or in their advertising. What role does that play within the line review?
Well, it all goes back to that fundamental idea of come with a marketing plan, not a product plan. You should be proactive in the line review and have a recommended promotional schedule where you’re showing what kind of offers, price off, buy one get one free, who cares what, in the category to drive interest for the shoppers and help the buyers succeed their year over year growth.
Now whether it’s online or on the shelf, online is a little simpler because you can do it more or less at the drop of a hat. On the shelf is a lot more sophisticated but you’re going to sell a lot more in that end cap promotion let’s say tied to the specific time of year when your category might be the most relevant.
So those are the things that help the merchant achieve their year over year growth, keep your sales high, and hopefully, you’ve budgeted for that kind of promotions if you can’t afford them out of just the pricing, it’s established in the day to day business.
That allows you to be more aggressive if it’s budgeted because you’ve planned ahead for that spend with that retailer to achieve a certain growth objective that you have established together. That perhaps is the most important part of the promotion is that you’re trying to accomplish goals that you set together, and you think ahead, not just ahead of the next quarter or two, but you think ahead for the full year.
Cross Promoting Your Product
Yes, that’s a great suggestion. What about one that’s also, I think, a big missing opportunity or very difficult to accomplish with big boxes is the idea of cross promoting. So if my product naturally fits with another product or part of a project, I find it very difficult to get the buyer from one category to coordinate with the buyer from another category so that the sales happen together. If you’re going to build a deck, in my opinion, you can have three or four different categories involved in everything you need to build a deck. I’ve never been able to get through a line review to get the buyer to see that potential and see how it’s going to help his category sales. Any thoughts on that Greg?
Well, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for that one. You have folks that are essentially in competition with one another and unless they have the same next level boss, which occasionally happens if you’re all in the hardware department let’s say, it may be achievable. About the best that I have ever seen is when one critical component takes it upon themselves from a project rather than a process perspective to promote the entire project, and they do it in such a way that it is taking their isle and maybe doing a quarter pallet display, a dump in, or something in their aisle to get you excited about doing the project and then you ultimately go to the other isles to complete your to-do list, but they make that to do list as easy as pie, online tools, an actual physical pad or something like that or just simplistic ways of trying to execute that.
The other time I’ve seen it work is when you have two friendly competitors in a category band together to try and drive sales. Now these aren’t competitive products; they are complimentary products, and so they’ll do some things with the retailers to get an end cap built around a theme, and that has also been successful in my path.
Keeping Up With Big Box Changes
So Greg, another area that I find manufacturers frequently make mistakes are they think they understand Lowe’s or Home Depot because they are close to it or familiar, or they’ve been dealing, or they have just their own impressions of the company, good, bad, accurate, or inaccurate.
Both Lowe’s and Home Depot are constantly changing, and I think it starts, to me, it always starts with the CEO, the CEO sets a new tone, and this is what we’re going to do. For example, recently the CEO of Home Depot spoke to a number of investors, and his comments were well publicized, and it was about how his focus for Home Depot is going to be to grow their pro-business, he sees that as their future opportunity and knowing that I would want to put that into my presentation literally when you’re in the buyer, “I see that you’re going to be trying to grow your pro-business, here’s how we can support you to do that” Is that, what are your thoughts on that Greg?
First of all, when there is major corporate initiative like that, buyers are often the front line for the execution and so they’re reaching out through the line review or proactively saying “I need to understand what you can do for the pro in our category”, and they never say it that nicely, they find ways to make you feel like your whole business is at risk.
What they’re doing is executing key initiatives and knowing what those key initiatives as they are merging is what’s going to make you a better partner and more successful in doing business. I agree completely with you, Many times those account managers have very close relationships with those buyers but they’re not hearing what they’re hearing in the corporate meeting and what’s more is corporate executives need to be aware of what their key customers are doing too.
So some recommendations on how to get, I’ll call it visibility, to those issues is first go into the investor relations sections of all of your top customers if they’re privately held, or if they’re not privately held, and you’ll often find a calendar of upcoming events, you’ll see all the presentations and you’ll certainly to look at the transcripts if not listen to the calls themselves to what’s being said to Wall Street. If you have access to analysts’ recommendations, that also gives you a great deal of insight into what the hot topics are going to be.
One place where you can definitely get visibility is through a company called Cleveland Research, they are a group for, you basically have access to the information as it’s made available for a fee, that means basically join and they also actively solicit your thoughts and opinions around what’s going on in the market as well.
Okay, great, you know another one that I do Greg, is I have a Google alert set up for both Lowes and Home Depot that I go in and check, it just covers news stories that have popped up and sometimes I find things that aren’t covered. Like recently I saw, I think it was Home Depot, had a major initiative to support veterans and home improvements and I think they were doing something like helping a thousand veterans somehow and I would think that that would also be something you could look at and say “Gee, is that something we could get involved in and support” What do you think about that?
Any time that you can participate with the retailer against any of the causes that they’re passionate about, Habitat for Humanity that most folks definitely are participating in, it gives you opportunities to have additional conversations with the retailer at all different levels and in generally more informal settings and those things are, I think, pay huge dividends and most companies participate in some way shape or form but the more you participate, the more you’re able to align your initiative with your customers initiatives that just helps create additional opportunities for conversations and communication.
Yes, Okay. Another one that I would not assume is if I’ve learned something, for example if the CEO gets called by Wall Street Journal and he says some things, I wouldn’t assume that he’s had a meeting with all the buyers and repeated what he said. What are your thoughts on that?
Mark, I don’t even understand the question.
Well, I wouldn’t, let’s say I find a piece of information on an initiative that Home Depot or Lowes is doing. I would not assume that the buyer has been communicated with internally on every time one of those initiatives somehow communicated.
Oh, I see what you’re saying. I agree that the CEO has opportunities to say things that are going to telegraph a shifting of initiatives and the more that you can see are we flipping from sales are no longer, and margin is, as an example, the more in line your presentations and stories that you’re telling the buyers are going to be, and it’s going to set the buyer up for success as they turn around and communicate what their decisions are into their leadership team.
Remember that credibility that you have as a supplier or a potential supplier is also always being evaluated by the buyer and the more that you’re in line with what that buyer is looking for and often compensated for, the more you’re stories are going to be relevant and their eyes aren’t going to glaze over.
Yes, Okay. That’s a good point, and one final question I have for you Greg, and that is, are there things you can do in between line reviews, in your daily or how frequently you’re engaging with your buyer, but things you can be doing, I’ll call it, throughout the year that set the stage that when you walk in the line review you’re already let’s fay favorably disposed in the buyers mind. Are there things you can be doing between reviews?
Two Kinds of Line Reviews
Well, that’s a great question, and I should start off by saying by saying there’s really two kinds of line reviews. There is the soft line review, and then there’s the hard line review if you will. And a soft line review is often called a business update as opposed to a product line review and the people who have business updates because line reviews aren’t always annual; Home Depot tends to review a category every three years, on average.
There’re exceptions to that, but the more aggressive as you as an organization about bringing new products and at the same time making recommendations about sales growth, bringing any kind of support to the buyer on how they can continuously and constantly be looking at growing their business and not waiting on a letter or an email saying “Congratulations, your category is in line with you”.
These are the things that are going to set you apart as a fabulous supplier and the things that are going to make that buyer go “you know I’ve got a good solution here, I have been constantly fine tuning the set, and I know that there’s no need for me to worry about this category right now” and that becomes a business update rather than that hard line review.
Remember these line reviews are a lot of work for everybody, not just you as a product manufacturer but they as a retailer and nobody wants to undertake that work and not know what kind of return they’re going to get. So if you’ve been providing value and been providing a return as a supplier, then that buyer is going to worry about their bigger problems.
Yes, that’s great advice. Greg, I think we’ve had a good discussion, this has been a very great call. I think to our audience it’s going to be very helpful and insightful for them to take a fresh look at their line reviews and their overall relationships with their big box customers so they’ll be more successful. Could you take a minute and just kind of recap a lot of the major points someone should take away from this?
When you walk into the line review, a buyer really wants to know and is looking for you to educate them on who’s winning and who’s losing in the market place, what’s important to their shopper, what’s new and innovative that they’re missing out on and could take advantage of and finally how are you going to help me grow my business.
If you can answer those questions, and bring a marketing plan rather than a product pitch, then that buyer is going to be a lot more open to the question of why you should be their supplier going forward.
Now I also will say that even though you are making your product pitch to the buyer, the buyer has to turn around and educate their leadership team on what their plan is and why they believe it’s going to be successful. So facts are more important than anything at all as to helping them achieve their goals that they are offering the right product, for the right price, at the right time and place.
Excellent, excellent. Well Greg I want to thank you for helping us out and contributing your years of experience in dealing with big boxes and particularly line reviews, this is very good, and I want to hopefully, to our audience, this has helped you and given you some insights on how to be more successful and maybe a fresh approach to line reviews. As always if you’d like to improve your big box results particular with your line reviews, please feel free to contact me.
Thank you for listening to this podcast from Mark Mitchell on Building Materials Sales and Marketing. We hope he gave you some fresh perspectives on how to grow your sales and listen to future episodes.