Start Listening !

We are all guilty.

No matter how much we think we do, it’s never enough.

Wherever you are in the supply chain, no matter what market you are in, we don’t always listen to our customers or suppliers’ Of course this does not always relate to our commercial lives, it is, invariably, true of our personal relationships . However, whilst I can’t profess to be a specialist in any field I am most definitely not one when it comes to personal advice.

2023 is going to be a challenging year with many hurdles. We all need to be on top of our game which not only means listening to the level below i.e. the customer but also with the level above i.e. the supplier . We may not like what we hear . We may disagree with what we hear . The key is to hear what is being said and then to evaluate whether/what action is needed .

So it came as no surprise shortly after Christmas , The Times reported research (on New Year celebrations ) carried out by John Lewis from their website that searches for the word bunting were up by 40% and balloons by 140%. Whilst the John Lewis site does carry a few(about 10) of each item(most relate to birthday), if you look in most John Lewis stores you would be hard pushed to find any. Is that likely to change any time soon ? Probably not. But then John Lewis would not be a destination store for that type of product . But why then are they making a press release about it ?

Why, when they have a very similar target audience, are Wilko’s suffering, whilst Home & Bargain, B&M and Poundland are creaming it. May I suggest that they all have access to the same listening (consumer data) but it is how they have dealt with what they hear, that makes the ‘not’ inconsiderable difference.

It is not only about talking to your customers and hearing what they have to say , it’s talking to your suppliers , your competitors even. They may not always say what you want them to say, more often it is what they don’t say that is just as helpful. Visit Trade Exhibitions and see and hear what is happening within your industry. Read Trade Journals, albeit much of the content is very benign, nevertheless, I guarantee every so often there is something you would not already know.

There is a huge amount of data bombarding us on a daily basis. Much of it is just noise. But we cannot pretend it is not there, the skill is filtering the noise and to do this we need to listen.

There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing


At a very recent trade show , I discovered, inadvertently that a product a customer of mine was seeking to import from the US was actually made 100 miles from him in the UK. He would no doubt have found out eventually, but it might have been a very expensive route. This came about from a very random conversation with an exhibitor who was displaying something very similar to the product my customer had told me about. An argument could be made that my customer should have found this out by listening. Can’t argue with that.

Another retailer being a little concerned about their poor level of business over the Christmas period and putting it down to general economic malaise, then discovered from other local traders that many of the locals in their area (it must be pointed out that the average consumer in this area is quite affluent and used to spending the summer in Tuscany!) had indeed decided to go away for an extended Christmas holiday.

True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information

Winston Churchill

He doesn’t specifically talk about listening but that is what I take from the quote ( or at least in part).

42% of companies don’t survey their customers or collect feedback.

Hubspot Research

Ignore customers at your own peril

Back in the summer of 2011, Netflix ignored their customers by splitting its DVD and streaming businesses and effectively increasing prices by 40%. As a result, they lost a whopping 800,000 subscribers, their stock price fell to less than half its previous value, and the company became one of the 10 most hated companies in America.

Insider 2012

Not listening to your colleagues

The best example is from a Kodak engineer named Steven J. Sasson. He actually invented the first digital camera back in 1975. But his management did not take it seriously, it didn’t want to be associated with it. Kodak’s management failed to see digital photography as a disruptive technology because printed photos had been there for over 100 years, and who would want to see pictures on a television screen? At the same time, Kodak did not want to cannibalize its film roll business so it tried to keep the new technology under the radar.

Not listening to the consumer and the market place

BlackBerry believed too much in what they owned. The Customer experience is where BlackBerry turned out to be a laggard.

Both the above quotes come from http://www.togroundcontrol .com

The process of listening encompasses a whole gamut of activities. Be they visiting trade shows, attending conferences, speaking to friends, colleagues, customers , suppliers, associates , family, reading /listening to various media, being aware of what is happening on social media, especially, but not solely ,business sites like LinkedIn . There is a lot of guff in the latter two , but sometimes there are little gems .

There is an idiom in the English language “I’m all ears”. Not a great image as the guy below may testify but an imperative when trading in the current climate.

Big Ears, best friend of Noddy. For those who don’t know them, Shame on you -Google them! Big Ears listened to Noddy’s problems and helped him out a lot .

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

Bernard M. Baruch

There is one resource we all have in our Commercial Toolbox , the facility to listen. And it costs nothing. Not using it can cost an awful lot.

Sex Toys……The Next Product coming to a Supermarket near you ?


Well according to that august title Retail Gazette, there are a number of product categories that the High Street Majors are considering. Sex Toys, Vaping and Plant Based products are three of them . Covid tests, meal kits and Pick and Mix are the others.

As far as Sex Toys are concerned it has already happened as Tesco is rolling out a range in 250 stores.

Vaping, I would have thought they were a bit behind the eight ball on this one. Yes, the market is still growing . Currently in the U.K. the market is estimated at about £3 billion. However, according to some retailers I have spoken with, the consumer tends to shop seeking advice. Perhaps trying different flavours it doesn’t appear to be natural for supermarkets where they would not get the service levels that provide optimum experience.

Plant Based products is the grouping that is a tad amusing. A massive part of what they sell already are plant based. Like what are bananas, potatoes, cabbages, sprouts, and the entire fruit and veg sections if they are not plant based . Sure, I know that there are plant based burgers , ice cream, cakes, and whole gamut of imitation type products. But the reality is that chunks of standard Supermarket offerings are Plant based. It is a marketing hype and I am not convinced it is terribly helpful especially to those who are very wary of what they would describe as fads without realising they are probably eating a load of plants already. There is also a large junk of the population who would see the Category Plant Based and put two and two together ( making it five during the current inflationary cycle looks a bit conservative) and assume that it would be too expensive . That said, the cynic on my shoulder would point that this category would be more expensive and more profitable.

Supermarkets are notoriously slow in their buying decisions, waiting for range reviews before even considering new products. I would have thought the search of new products should come first and then decide when to have range review. Buying Departments within the multiples should be renamed Sourcing . Actually one has started to use that Description. When it comes to a Multiple looking at products that are outside of their core range they tend to take the line of least resistance. I could not count the number of times, when approached or having approached a Multiple retailer their first test is to match your prices against their incumbent supplier. If you don’t match they wont look. Or rather the reality is that if you are not lower they wont look. Not sure this is the most efficient way of keeping pace with the market. But not likely to see much change anytime soon. ! It is just very frustrating.

Covid testing is a difficult one. One half of me says they are just jumping on a band wagon, the other half says if you need a test quickly and are unsure how to get one but know that Tesco ( or any supermarket) do them , it would make that process a lot easier and probably quicker. At least they would have some credibility as opposed to some strange and distant Medical Company that you know nothing about , or worse still the Government . Great situation that, Who do we trust most ? The Government or a Supermarket ? Answers on a postcard.

Strangely, none of these items appear in Shopify’s product trending list for 2022. What is even stranger is that items appear in the Shopify list that are products the Supermarkets are kicking out, Books and CDs.

Extract from Shopify 2022 Product Trends

What was No 1 ? Books and E-Books. Now Shopify was highlighting trends based on Online selling (hence E Books). However , nowhere in their top 21 did any of the Product areas as detailed at the beginning of this post, appear . I am not suggesting that Multiples should be looking at LP’s but when you look at the numbers especially for CD’s (albeit from a very low level ) that there must be more interesting and healthier options than Vaping.

For the Good Independent Retailer out there , I think this is good news. But you have to be good. For so many years (within the Party sector) I have walked into Party Retailers and they have said oh, I can’t sell that sort of product as the supermarkets have killed it. I just can’t compete. They could and can. Most of them have gone now . I suggest that many had not actually looked in their local supermarket as they were usually poorly ranged and certainly offered no level of service .

So for those looking at a range of sex toys -go for it. If Tesco are giving it a level of respectability and no level of service, you are onto a winner .