Stop using industry terms and start using shopper language

Darren Smith

Darren Smith is the founder of Making Business Matter (MBM), a training provider to the UK grocery industry, and a former Sainsbury’s category manager for frozen foods, chilled convenience foods and fresh produce in the late 1990s. He has also written the book: A Complete Understanding of the Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP). In this post, Darren explains why he believes the language used in the produce business is “out-of-date” and “out-of-kilter” with shoppers; meaning the less buyers and suppliers talk like and sell like shoppers, the less they will ultimately sell

It was back in the early noughties that I took the reins of the fruit buying team for one of the big four UK supermarkets. Looking through the pile of performance data I just had to ask – ‘What is topfruit?’. Strolling into my boss’s office, and now looking back, maybe it wasn’t the best first question. ‘What?’, came the reply. ‘Topfruit – what is it?’, I continued. ‘Apples and pears’, he groaned; looking at me like I was a produce virgin. ‘OK, why is it called that?’, the produce virgin marched on. ‘Well, err, I’m not sure. No-one’s ever asked me that… Maybe it’s because they’re grown at the top of the tree’, my then boss replied with a mixed feeling of bewilderment and ‘who cares?’.

During my tenure of 12 years at the supermarket – buying and managing categories from frozen foods to ready meals to fruit – I realised there were a huge number of specific words and phrases that we used in the industry. That’s no different to any other industry. Words like ‘SKU’, ‘twofer’ (2 for) and ‘cannibalisation’ were OK to use because they helped us work easier together and made us feel like we were part of the same club. The ‘BUT’ came when we were using those industry terms to describe things that the shopper was describing too. Then we were out of kilter with the shopper, and that is a problem, or an opportunity, as my mental fitness guru would say!

Working with suppliers for the last 14 years as a training provider, I have found that they too are using a huge variety of words and phrases to describe products, category sub segments, product attributes, and quality. Words the shopper would never dream of using. The wider the opportunity gap between what we use as ‘industry experts’ and what the shopper uses to describe our category and its products, the less we understand our shopper, the less we can communicate with our shopper effectively, and the less likely our identified category opportunities are to succeed.

Take the example of ‘topfruit’. It was on all the internal documents – from sales and profit reporting, to supply chain hierarchy, to supplier presentations, to the language we used ourselves. When we came to communicate with the shopper on point of sale, vouchers, or press, was it used? No, never. So why were we? It was just part of what we did.

The three problems that using these non-shopper terms caused were:

  1. As industry experts we had to re-think what we were doing when we communicated with the shopper, and we either made mistakes and used our terms, or we spent more time rewinding what we knew to what they knew. We almost had two sets of understanding – one for us and one for them.

  2. By using an industry term we have to ask ourselves ‘Why?’. Are we trying to make something work in our industry that does not work for the shopper? The suppliers of cooked meats use a term called ‘four by four’ to describe a piece of ham (because it measure 4 inches by 4 inches). The shopper has never heard of this term. The shopper uses ‘sandwich ham’. The industry doesn’t use this term because it is too broad and they need a specific term for a particular range. The challenge isn’t to create a new term. The challenge is to educate the shopper and help them to use a more specific term, or to change what we do.

  3. As category management took hold in the noughties ‘topfruit’ became a category. It was only years later after a piece of shopper research was conducted that we had enough ‘ammunition’ to challenge the status quo and re-write the hierarchy that had existed throughout the internal systems for a millennia. ‘Topfruit’ was changed into two categories; apples and pears. The danger is that industry terms just get accepted and become part of the new age of thinking without being challenged.

The challenge is to identify the industry terms that you use for your category and your products, and ask why you use them. What does the shopper use instead? How can you start to move from one term to another? Either you need to educate the shopper or change the terms that you use.

Our Category Management training course at MBM covers this very topic and many more to help suppliers become category managers and then category leaders.




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