I’ve been told I’m a “unicorn”. At first I didn’t get it (I actually had to google what it could have meant?). Then as years passed by, I’ve become acutely aware that I’m not a mythical creature, and that people with my unique combination of skills, qualifications and experience do actually exist. If that sounds arrogant, it’s not my intention. It can be lonely being a rarity in the market at times. But rest assured there is a small unicorn population out there, just like me… we’re called category management experts.
What is category management?
Category management is a collaborative process adopted by retailers and suppliers in FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) to help drive business performance, by better understanding how to deliver value to customers .
In a nutshell, this means selling products by category rather than by brand. There is a functional and logistical element to the process, and there also is a relational and human side to the process. The PhD I’m currently undertaking is exploring these dynamics from both a qualitative and quantitative research perspective, with the aim of trying to understand competitive retail environments. Ideally category management can be a win/win for suppliers, retailers and customers, but if that turns out to be unachievable, at least I’ll discover through my research why it’s not possible.
Learning about category management
Considering the Australian retail sector makes the highest employment contribution to the Australian economy, with 1.3 million people and 11% of the workforce, you may expect there would be a focus on category management as part of many popular courses studied. While I completed three degrees through one of Australia’s leading universities (in business and psychology), I didn’t learn a single thing about category management or market insights through any of them! Everything I’ve learned has been either on the job (working inside a retailer, supplier, agency and now a private consultancy), or through presentations by industry partners.
My PhD results
Four years into a six year part-time PhD journey whilst juggling two companies and a family, it’s safe to assume that achieving work/life balance is not my area of expertise (try me again in two years). However I can vouch for this: if you’re passionate about finding out the why behind something, a PhD is a pretty good vehicle to help you achieve that.
Wearing my supplier hat, I want to know why the retailers aren’t accepting our new products in development (NPD)? The generic answers provided just aren’t constructive enough. As a retailer, I question why suppliers aren’t sharing holistic category insights, instead of a tunnel-vision brand-driven sales pitch. The conversation can’t be strategic or collaborative, and simply shows they aren’t on the same page. As a research consultant I want to know why both retailers and suppliers trust me more than they trust each other? The undercurrent of past politics can block all hope for future joint business planning and innovation.
The results thus far have been fascinating, if not a little concerning for the future of our retail economy. I’m still in the midst of analysing the data, but if you’re interested in learning more when I’m able to share, send me a message on LinkedIn. Until all is revealed, here are my thoughts on what we need to do in the category management and the insights space.
A unicorn’s guide to the future of category management and customer insights
- Bridge the current gap between academia and industry
- Even better, educate our young graduates before they go into industry
- Better still, train and support the rare skillset of CM managers and analysts on the job
- Rebuild the bridge between retailers and suppliers to encourage collaboration
- Upskill the entire industry on category management and insights
- Teach the value (and difference) between big data and actionable insights
- Identify who to hire – are they a unicorn or just a horse with a carrot?
- Work together on solving this industry problem.
Soon I’ll be able to tell you the why… my next job is to figure out how.
Rebecca Rees presented at Slade Chats in partnership with Females in Food on Thursday 19 October 2017. Contact Stuart Carruthers, Practice Leader Consumer, Retail & Sport at Slade Executive for further information about our events, if you need assistance when hiring in these sectors or are seeking career advice.
- Gooner, Morgan & Perreault, 2011; Blattberg, Fox & Purk, 1995.
- ABS 2015-16, cat. no. 8155.0