There's been a great deal of talk about Efficient Consumer Response. Now the industry is anxious to see more short-term, concrete action. The reality of the situation is that implementation of many of the elements most commonly associated with ECR -- electronic data interchange and cross-docking -- require substantial capital investment in technology and systems, and human resources investment in restructuring and training. There is, however, an easy immediate first step: building open and beneficial partnerships between retailers/wholesalers and manufacturers. Strong partnerships embody the spirit of ECR and are truly the cornerstone of the initiative. In their most formal mode -- strategic alliances -- such relationships often fall outside the sphere of brand managers' responsibilities. But there are things brand managers can do to foster relationships with retailers, improving their own partnering franchises along the way. They include: Establish Real Communication. Philosophically, we all agree that retailers/wholesalers and manufacturers can do a great deal to help each other. But in the heat of managing our day-to-day operations, communication can become an afterthought. The result is missed opportunities in the short term, and missed building blocks for long-term synergies. Remember that the retailer is your closest link to the consumer. Two other points: First, real-time information is quickly becoming a food industry reality and it will change our lives forever. When possible and appropriate, share this wealth of data with your retail partners. Second, communicate with retailers using consistent language that is relevant to their business. Although you may be evaluating programs based on regional or citywide sales performance, retailers/wholesalers are interested in their own company or individual store performance. Category Management. More and more retailers are incorporating category management into their operations. Brand managers who want to establish closer ties with retailers must therefore start thinking in these terms and helping retailers boost entire category sales. Those who don't will be left behind as retailers work with other suppliers or do it on their own. In-Store Marketing Programs. I believe these programs provide a tremendous forum for building manufacturer-retailer relationships. Because of the extreme focus of the retailer on store-level activities, working relationships in-store often involve closer interaction than those surrounding other joint marketing programs. Many in-store media can be adapted to fit individual chain or even individual store needs.
Robert O. Aders, past president of Food Marketing Institute, is a strategic adviser to Catalina Marketing, a provider of in-store electronic marketing programs.