Wine suppliers criticise skills of supermarket buyers

Leading wine suppliers have criticised the skills of supermarket buyers, claiming lack of experience is damaging the industry’s ability to trade sustainably as market pressures intensify.

Brand owners have voiced concerns that retailers’ commercial teams are ill-equipped to deal with the impact of the recession, unpredictable exchange rates and duty hikes of 48% in the past five years.

One supplier said the current batch of buyers was the weakest line-up the industry has seen, and urged them to draw on the “considerable” experience of producers, many of whom had learnt lessons from previous recessions.

The source told OLN: “Retailers have one of the most inexperienced buying units I’ve ever known, because there aren’t the hard arses who have been through these kinds of economic conditions before.

“But, in fairness to the supply side, there are many people who have experienced recessions and have built and sustained brands in tough times. In some cases, buyers’ commercial nous and expertise is so bad that you can barely move forward.

“There are retailers where the skills gap between the top-level trading teams and the category-specific buyers is too big. All suppliers are making big adjustments to their models and everyone is having to reset their numbers. And it’s the suppliers coming up with the solutions.”

Another top supplier agreed, adding: “There are a lot of new, young buyers as retailers fill the gaps left by the departure of some industry stalwarts. They are never going to be able to match the experience of people who were around for years and you do wonder sometimes if they really know what they’re doing.”

But Dan Jago, UK and group wine director at Tesco, hit back saying suppliers should be more focused on finding ways to work with retailers to help sustain the industry.

He said: “What people mean when they say buyers aren’t of a high enough calibre is that they haven’t been successful [in securing listings]. I’m astonished at how many suppliers come in [for a meeting] and have done no research. They regard it as a chat and haven’t thought through what the buyer wants.

“The best buyers are the ones who indicate what they need from suppliers before they see them. Tesco is the only retailer still wedded to the role of product developer verses the role of buyers and I think we have the strongest buying team in the UK.

“Tesco believes you have to have bums on seats to have meaningful, constructive relationships. People say that when they come to Tesco they get a high calibre of debate and discourse.

“Lots of suppliers say [buyers] don’t know about wine and they are probably right, but then suppliers need to explain why wine is unique and special and what consumers think about wine.

“There are some very good suppliers but others tend to look at it in terms of ‘what’s in it for me and my brand’ rather than ‘what’s in it for the consumer?’ That’s part of the problem with the wine industry.”

Responding to suggestions from suppliers that trading strategies were becoming difficult to sustain due to the ongoing churn of buyers, Jago acknowledged retailers had to ensure they attracted the best talent when recruiting new staff.

He said: “The biggest challenge is that there are those who are in the job because they are passionate about wine and they tend to stay and, on the other side, you get those with a normal commercial background who move on. It’s my job to keep filling the pipeline.”

Other suppliers said they had identified ways to “support” buyers and increase their knowledge through research and market insight.

Paul Schaafsma, Accolade Wines’ general manager for the UK, Ireland, said: “To be an appropriate supply partner you need to become almost an extension of the buying team to provide additional services that complement the buyers. Rather than criticise buyers’ experience, it’s our job to provide category insights to make sure we are helpful.”

PLB managing director Peter Darbyshire said it had also adapted its approach. He added: “PLB has grown in the way it has because we have built in different skills in terms of benchmarking products and consumer data. We don’t try to spin it, but if you don’t do that, where’s the added value?”

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