How do you define your experience with suppliers?
Our relationship is contextual. We see a world where food is more than just a commodity or a personal indulgence; we see food as a vehicle of exchange, of ideas, and of conflict. This is who we are and what we do.
As a business, we also constantly ask ourselves the following:
. How do we interpret the market?
. What future do we envision for our products, our company?
. And, how do we act?
And where does the supplier fit in?
From our perspective every customer is looking for an outcome. Products can make those outcomes possible but, it is the supplier who delivers the outcome. In this respect we need to develop a kind of synergy between ourselves and our producers, otherwise it just can’t work.
Can you give us an example of product and outcome?
Ok, so we use a shipping agent because we need to ship our goods halfway across the world. The agent has the product/service that makes this possible, but all that we care about is getting our shipment from A to B, on schedule, and without hassle; that’s the outcome that we’re looking for.
If the shipment is problematic the agent has not delivered the outcome. This might be due to their own shortcomings or that of the shipping line, irrespective, they have both possibly just lost a client.
And this is where your supplier risks come in?
Yes, this is where the risks that we’ve talked about are either resolved, or not! Given our supplier profiles, this is a gradual process that takes a bit of time to get right, and we need to make sure that it’s intimately related to the framework that we have assigned to the producer.
Can you tell us a bit more about this framework?
A case in point: one of our supplier’s products does a lot better than expected for the quarter, and with the lead times for delivery that we carry, our customers will run out of stock.
This event is a trigger ( one of the key junctures on the road map ) that signals to the supplier that demand for their product is starting to kick in, and that the other stakeholders will be starting to re-evaluate the risks and investment levels that are associated with it.
This is an opportunity however that can easily turn on its head, and in trying to adequately prepare our suppliers, we are trusting that they can quickly react to it, eventually becoming proactive and taking initiative to help us in crossing the hurdles that are associated with this stage in their product’s development.
This is an example of how the framework helps to guide our suppliers by clearly explaining to them the meaning and implications of particular developments. It also highlights to them the decisions and actions that they will need to take in these eventualities. The framework covers possible developments related to country risk and logistics, as well as those specific to distribution channel and consumer behaviour. It’s dynamic work in progress.
What about the context?
We operate in a food sector that is saturated with all sorts of products, and where competitors big and small are constantly vying for buyer and consumer attention. This environment is positive in that it encourages innovation, but it is also very difficult because of the level of resources that are required to manage and sustain performance, and to protect market position.
Do you focus on a particular sector in the food industry?
When we first started, an obvious niche for us was the health-food and natural products sector where the ethical perspective was high both on the trade and consumer sides. This market grew and blossomed in the U.K through a grass roots movement that had taken shape back in the sixties and seventies. Many of the early advocates are now major players in the sector and are at the forefront of what mainstream supermarkets and convenience stores consider trends. It was in this neck of the woods where we felt we could find the support we needed to establish and grow.
And how do you interpret this environment?
It is with our customers and potential customers that we first share our vision. It is with them that we develop and introduce products, so understanding why and how we can deliver outcomes for them is crucial.
Sure, most of the time thankfully: people with whom we can share visions and act upon them.
And can you define the outcomes for your customers?
Yes, products that work!
But not just financially, which is an assumption here. These products also carry with them additional meanings that are realised when the product sells.
What kind of meaning?
Other than generic outcomes: i.e. profitable trades, adequate order fulfilment, product support and so on, these meanings are specific to the client at a particular point in time, and can vary in substance and scope.
For example, they might be related to the launch of a new line or category of product, to addressing competitive forces, to a focus on differentiation, on costs, on particular consumer behaviour.
The point is that in many cases for a product to really work, it has to address outcomes that often carry a multitude of significance beyond the product’s immediate utility.
And how do you factor this in then?
So a product is contextual, and this means that demand for it depends on external factors.
There is little incentive then, in initiating any export activity without first understanding this context, and having a sense of customer outcomes provides us with a clear future vision for the product. In this respect we are also looking for indications of momentum: i.e. the ability to carry through longer term objectives.
So in a sense you have to create demand
Absolutely. The stronger the contextual meaning the better the chances for the product to work. In a successful product the relationship between product and outcome becomes self-evident.