Sales reps have traditionally been vital in bringing new brands and ideas to the outdoor marketplace, but their role in recent years has changed as a result of consolidation and advancements in technology. Reps are now increasingly asked to help manage inventories and improve product turns for vendors. Retailers are looking for more support to help them manage inventories, maximize margins and plot business strategy. Good reps must also command a depth of product knowledge that rivals tech reps. They need to be ready to share insights on current market trends and come up with effective local marketing strategies.
The sales rep function now more closely resembles that of a key account manager or business consultant according to sales execs in the industry. While it's still critical to land a sale, planning and follow-through have become much more important. Many are managing brands rather than their daily call schedules.
But the overall number of reps working the industry has contracted over the years, largely due to the consolidation of retailers and fewer new brands entering the market. As in many industries, reps are also being asked to do more and cover larger territories. Moreover, many frustrations over the evolving role of the rep were voiced in a recent survey of SportsOneSource network members.
John Drollinger, a rep with JanSport said, “As an independent rep, I feel it is very important not only to represent my brand to the retailer, but representing my retailer to the brand, especially independent specialty retailers. When chain and/or big box retailers account for large chunks of the [bottom line], it is easy for the voice of the smaller independent specialty shops to get muted.”
The core relationship building process has also become more involved. In addition to working more closely with buyers and owners, the sales reps job often entails training employees and even working alongside them on the sales floor. The best participate in or even create local grassroots events to show their support of the store and drive demand with the end consumer.
As with many roles, technology has been a huge driver in changing the way sales reps function on a daily basis. Smart phones, blogs, twitter, social networking sights, and user comments on online retail sites have all combined to dramatically enhance both external and internal communications as well as to facilitate the spread of information.
With the rapid proliferation of online retail, user comments and even social networks linked to e-commerce sites, many sales reps are representing their brands directly to the consumer. For example, Backcountry.com has a social network of nearly 80,000 “gear heads” who regularly comment or answer questions about gear that is for sale on the Backcountry.coms different e-commerce sites. Other e-commerce platforms, like Moosejaw.com, have seen great success with user-comments and social networking as well. Good sales reps are engaging these users in conversations and building their brands directly with the consumer.
Some things never change. The job still requires a lot of persistence and attention to detail, especially in the more niche markets of the outdoor industry.
Rutabaga Paddlesports Owner Darren Bush said, “What is missing is the creativity to work with different accounts in different ways. We don't have the same needs as other stores, but some of our reps treat us the same as every other store, never bothering to ask us what we actually need. I think that's the sticking point, we need reps who work for us to grow our business long-term. Lines come and go, but relationships built on trust last forever.”
Spreadsheets, order tracking, item set-up sheets, planograms and product information forms dominate a typical day. For retailers and dealers, many B2B sites have been set up to provide a way to easily enter or check orders on a 24/7 basis.
“Who hasn't used Amazon at this point to find holiday or birthday gifts?” says Peter O'Neil, EVP of sales and marketing at Centerstone Technologies, a provider of Web-based B2B e-commerce solutions. “In the same manner that consumers use the Internet to make purchases, businesses also want to use the Web to conduct business with their suppliers on a 24/7 basis.
“The rep has total visibility into what the dealer is doing and good reps want as much information as possible because they know that knowledge is power,” said O'Neil. “You've got access to so much information on the Web, and retailers want to work with those reps who can help them better manage all that information.”
With the market in the state it is in right now, and both retailers and vendors looking to reduce risk, reps face an uphill battle in securing or even maintaining shelf space. Some will be up for the fight, while others will fall short of expectations. Finding the right blend of relationships, drive, information and technology may be the best and maybe the only answer.