By Alan & Christine Blumberg | Principals at RBG Sales
There have been more conversations lately about the future of sales representatives, and if they can still add value to our industry. We are here to affirm that sales reps are essential to the continued growth for both retailers and vendors. Having just returned from the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association’s Marketplace and Academy in August, we have never, in the last 20 years, been as proud to be reps as we are now.
Though we have all weathered the unimaginable challenge in 2020, sales reps now face a different kind of threat: a digital replacement. So, we wanted to give you a brief overview of why we think a rep plays an equal role in today’s marketplace.
Many buyers and vendors, at all levels of industry, have come to rely on their best sales reps to help them grow their business. But not all retailers and vendors choose to work with reps. There are different reasons that are given, but are they actually missing out and limiting their growth potential?
Why are there independent sales representatives?
Vendors hire independent sales representatives for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, vendors automatically add 50 to 60 sales reps, while not having to pay overhead costs such as salaries, health insurance, car leases, and more. At the same time, commissions are only paid if the sale has been made and the bill has been paid. A vendor is also taking advantage of the long-standing relationships sales reps have built over the years, which helps get products presented directly to the decision makers. All of this means that the vendor does not have to make thousands of calls every time they want to present their products — instead, the sales reps do it for them.
How do sales reps help the retailers?
We wouldn’t be able to succeed without our retail partners, and many retailers believe they would not succeed without their best sales reps. One of the most important reasons that retailers value their reps is that we save them time. They can contact one rep to handle issues with multiple vendors, instead of having to call 150 vendors individually. The smart retailers allow the reps to handle returns, damages, invoice discrepancies, track orders, and much more. It is like having a free employee they do not have to pay!
The best sales reps also have a good understanding of how their retailers curate their stores. When we are attending new product reviews, we immediately think of the stores that would be a great fit, and quickly alert them to the best new products coming to market. Good reps also learn the products — how to play a game, benefits for special needs, market analysis, and more. The best reps view the store as if it were their own, and they want to see it succeed. Many buyers that work with reps have become friends, confidantes, business partners — someone to lean on in good times and bad. Ultimately, sales reps need their retailers to be successful so they can continue to grow together.
How did we get here?
Independent sales reps get into this business for lots of reasons but the key might be in the word “independent.” As independent retailers and reps, we make our own decisions and our success is based on how hard we work. We can make a decision to work with people we like, or to promote toys and gifts that we think are beneficial to kids and families. We can also travel throughout the territory and live a life that is not based in a cubicle or a typical 9 to 5 work day. We get to meet new and interesting people, and wear lots of different hats: merchandiser, marketer, sales person, consultant, and more. Or maybe we are just kids at heart?
One of the things that draws us all together is that we are all part of a family-run business. There are definitely exceptions for some of the vendors we represent, and some of the retailers, but the familial feeling for the people with whom we work directly is a constant reminder of why we are great partners together. We aren’t part of the big corporate culture.
There are now new disruptors in our industry appearing as online wholesale platforms, which we call “virtual” salespeople. While we all want to embrace technology that makes our lives easier, there is a human cost to this. Much like how Amazon offered ease of use to consumers, while the loss of hundreds of specialty stores was devastating.
Faire, Tundra and Abound are among several online wholesale platforms who have emerged over the past few years. Though we understand the reason they exist, they also raise a red flag for independent sales reps. As one rep stated, “Faire is to reps what Amazon was to retailers.”
We know that these platforms are not going away, but in order to survive, we need to know how to work with our vendors and retailers to create partnerships while working within this new wholesale buying world. Our best vendors are the ones that collaborate with their sales team to create a solution that works for all of us. Most vendors work with Amazon; the ones that have also stayed loyal to brick and mortar retailers have figured out a strategy to make it profitable for both to succeed. Some of our vendors have also created a strategy for these wholesale platforms in order to keep their sales reps viable to the retail community. Many vendors still understand that there is no substitution for a human to personally present their products, instead of through a screen. Some of those digital sales sites are a great place to get found and also a great place to get lost.
As we write this, we are driving through Wyoming, South Dakota, and Colorado on our vacation after ASTRA. The endless roads and vast landscapes make us think of the local reps who service this area. If vendors could see how many hours and how many miles that sales reps drive to get to an independent store, they would be amazed. Sometimes it is a thankless job. but, we still love it.
And, though we are not breathing a sign of relief after COVID, we certainly have a new favorable wind at our backs. There is certainly a need to make families and kids happy during these challenging times, and we appreciate our partners.
In challenging times, it can be easy to fall back and play the victim or blame others for the current shortcomings we might be facing. But if we take a step back, our retail, rep, and vendor partners have all helped us survive and overcome fears and uncertainty during 2020. Though things may not be perfect right now, if we have patience and lean on our partners, we can continue to look forward to a continued renaissance for specialty retailers. We should all remember that success is not solitary and we should all share it together. If there is a future for independent vendors and retailers, there’s a future for sales reps.
This article appeared in the October 2021 issue of TFE Magazine.