Retailing is all about building relationships, the right relationships — with your customers, with the people in the community who can support and help you market your business and with your vendors. Without strong vendor relationships, procuring the right products for your clientele can, at the very least, take up much more of your time.
This is where your manufacturer reps come into play, particularly in lighting retail. The game has changed over the years, and the role of your lighting manufacturer’s rep has likely changed to a role that outside lighting showroom salespeople once assumed, says David Garcia, President of lighting rep group Wired Lighting Solutions. “We don’t sell the retailer,” he notes. “We help sell the customer through the retailer. Everything I’m geared toward is getting the product out the door for my retailers.” For Garcia, this includes calling on builders, architect firms and designers as well as helping with merchandising and training. “Any good lighting rep has to drive sales to the showroom,” he continues.
James Fleming, CEO of Camelot Consulting Group, agrees. “I’m delighted to see how many manufacturer’s reps in the lighting industry have developed beyond what was once their typical role,” he says. “The lighting rep has found they have to do more than sell product. It has become common for them to be proactive about going out to architects and designers to procure specifications for their products, and then driving those customers through the stocking dealers they support.”
While lighting manufacturer’s reps have typically been considered partners with their retail customers, the definition of that partner role has changed. According to Garcia, today’s reps need to do more than count inventory and alert customers when it’s time to restock.
First, much of that task has been automated and retailers can assess inventory levels for themselves. Second, the manufacturer’s rep has become so much more. “Basically, we do anything that makes their [our retail partners] lives easier,” he says, even if that means hand-delivering to the end customer, hanging fixtures in the showrooms (in some regions, this is expected; in others, it’s an added bonus), finding replacement parts or taking packaging materials away so the retailer doesn’t have to deal with that aggravation.” To understand their needs “we have to listen,” Garcia continues. “We should be engaging our customers on their level, not just pressing play and delivering our sales pitch. The information exchange has to go both ways.”
“Lighting reps have become more proactive than reactive,” Fleming adds. “They understand that they need to go out in their marketplace to create demand for their customers’ products. And then they have to pull that through to a loyal stocking dealer.” As the rep is taking on a more expansive role, retailers want to be in good standing with those types of agents. “Dealers should really be supporting those reps who are partnering with them to generate end user demand and sales,” Fleming says. He suggests sending internal salespeople out on the road with reps to meet with the customers the reps are bringing through the showrooms as one way to cement engaged relationships both at the manufacturer, rep and customer levels. Co-sponsored lunch-and-learns with the customer are also beneficial to building these important relationships.
Fleming also suggests that retail showrooms should be engaging their reps, 30, 60 or even 90 days prior to markets to create a purchasing strategy. Share what you’d like to accomplish in the showroom with your rep and then run through the plan together.
Knowing what’s new is often top-of-mind for retailers heading to market, but, Fleming continues, understanding what’s selling can be more important. Before considering new products, retailers should be investing in top performers. “Ask your vendor to pull a sales report of top sellers by category, style, price, volume and units,” Fleming notes. Sales are often regional, and your rep will best understand what’s working in your particular area.
When working with reps prior to market, retailers have the opportunity to assess what’s already in stock, what’s selling and what pieces need to be reconsidered. “With your reps, do an inventory performance review of what you already own. Then find out if there are any top performers you’re missing out on,” Fleming says. “Invest in those first. If there’s money left over in the purchasing budget, then consider new introductions.”
Fleming also notes that markets are an opportunity to promote your business locally. Ask your reps for marketing materials — press releases, photos and other assets — that can help you promote your business to your local media and community. “Use this as an opportunity to create a marketing and advertising campaign for the next six months,” he says. “Work with your reps on strategic business planning, rather than just to learn what’s new.”
“Good reps are an indispensable service to the manufacturer and the retailer,” adds Garcia. “We do a lot of things that ultimately save everyone time and money.”