Virtual is Here to Stay, Say Buyers  2/25/2022


BY: JOSEPH TARNOWSKI

 

I have always been an in-person kind of guy. Of all the personality types listed on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, mine (ENFJ-Protagonist) is often perceived as being the “strongest people person,” which many of you who know me would not find too surprising. I love mixing it up with buyers and sellers at ECRM sessions, and back in 2019, I actually participated in 48 of them across the U.S. and Europe. 

Then the pandemic hit, and the world went virtual.

Yet I haven’t missed a beat. Not only have I been able to maintain those relationships I’ve created in-person, I’ve developed an entirely new set of relationships via Zoom, Teams, Google Meets and ECRM Connect meetings. Better still, I’m getting even more work done than ever before. Since we went fully virtual, I’ve created hundreds of blog posts, more than 100 podcast episodes, I’ve interviewed more than 250 buyers for stories over the past year alone, and have created thousands of social media posts. I never would have been able to accomplish that with all of the time I spent on the road.

What’s more, I’ve found a better work-life balance. I’m healthier (working out twice a day, eating better, and getting truly restorative sleep plus I started resuming martial arts classes), I read at least a book a week, and I’m spending more quality time with family and friends. 

All due to the power of virtual technology.

Do I miss in-person gatherings? Sure I do. But the routines and habits I’ve developed around virtual engagement and the productivity and work-life balance I’ve achieved means that virtual will be a regular and important component of my life moving forward – even now that the pandemic is receding. It’s just too built-in to my routines. 

I wanted to see if my sentiments around virtual were reflected among our buyer community, and if they have experienced similar benefits as I have. So I recently spoke – virtually, of course – with more than a dozen buyers across a wide variety of retailers – including big box chains, regional players, and independents – to get a sense of how virtual technology has changed their world.

Efficiency on steroids
One thing was clear across the board: Virtual tools enable buyers to see far more brands, in less time, than would ever be possible in-person. It’s simple math. Virtual meetings are typically less time-consuming than in-person meetings. There’s no travel involved, no lunches or cocktails, and less “small talk.” As a result, buyers can get many more of them done in a given time period. 

And the numbers bear this out. In 2019, ECRM’s last full year of in-person sessions, we had 3,088 unique buyers participate across our category-specific sessions. By 2021, that number had grown to 4,659 buyers. Plus, these buyers are participating in more sessions each, with 2021 seeing 11,147 total buyer registrations across sessions, more than double the number from 2019. 

And even with the pandemic starting to recede in 2022, we are still breaking records each week in terms of buyer participant growth. Buyers who would travel to two or three category-specific sessions per year when they were in-person are now participating in five, 10 or even more. This means that buyers are engaging with far more brands annually, which translates into more opportunities for product discovery – great news for brands! 

"Moving forward, I plan to do a lot more virtual meetings," says John Carmichael, E-Commerce Buyer for The Exchange. "I'll use virtual for my initial meetings with new vendors, and then if things progress, we can meet in-person for more in-depth planning. But to be honest, virtual tools are so powerful these days, and we've all become so adapted to using them, that we can pretty much conduct most of our business remotely."

And he's not kidding. During this year alone, Carmichael will participate in a whopping 25 sessions as virtual enables him to most efficiently find the brands he needs to fill up the endless aisles of the retailer's online store. 

More with less
Not every retailer has the resources of national chains, and for independent retailers, virtual evens the playing field, enabling their buyers to vastly extend their reach. For one thing, these buyers are often responsible for a wider range of categories and covering them all with in-person meetings and events would be a huge time-suck. In addition, many simply don’t have the budgets to accommodate much travel.

"Having the capability to meet with suppliers virtually enables us to easily and quickly engage with brands all over the U.S. and even globally," says Maddie Metzger, Assistant Buyer at Misfits Market. "Since I work remotely, it's the best way for me to meet with a broad range of suppliers and perform my due diligence. And for many smaller retailers without the resources to travel regularly, it can be the only way they get exposure to the brands they need to meet."

Misfits Market's Maddie Young

Faster supplier follow up
One aspect of virtual that suppliers particularly like is the faster follow up times they have been seeing from buyers. In fact, I’ve reported on several cases in which suppliers have secured deals within days or weeks of their virtual meetings, such as was the case with Savia USA, Click & Carry and Zot Organic. Again this comes back to the time-savings and flexibility that virtual tools have provided buyers, as they no longer have to lose an entire week, and then spend the following week digging out from emails and missed calls, as they do when traveling to a tradeshow.

Think about it. When a buyer travels to a tradeshow, first there is the travel time to and from the location. Then, there is a keynote in the morning, then walking the trade show floor in the afternoon and early evening. Then functions at night. During this time, it’s difficult to keep up with day-to-day activities, and once they return home they have to dig out from everything that piled up during their absence. 

Virtual tools give these buyers more control over their time, and enable them to accomplish both their day-to-day tasks and supplier meetings, whether these meetings are on their own or via ECRM Connect.

"Virtual is a way of life now," says Tiffany Wu, Buyer, Gourmet Food for TJX. "It gives you full control of your schedule, and you can easily work your supplier meetings around your other responsibilities. And with the time savings from not having to travel or meet in person, it's much easier to stay on top of everything, and I can follow up with suppliers much more quickly."

Work life balance
Then, there is the work-life balance that comes from not being on the road or in the office all of the time. They are getting their lives back. While working remote can be a double-edged sword (it can be tempting to log on during off-hours to get some extra work done), those who have learned to create boundaries have reclaimed quite a bit of their lives. 

TJX's Tiffany Wu

One buyer, who is a new mom, for example, gets to spend extra time with her daughter while keeping up with her supplier meetings and other tasks. "Being able to leverage remote tools has been great for my work-life balance," says Kylie Brienza, Category Manager, Own Brands, Wakefern Food Corp. "I'm able to easily meet with lots potential suppliers -- whether on my own or through ECRM -- and still spend plenty of time with my daughter. I've been to seven ECRM virtual sessions over the past year. I never would have been able to participate in that many if they were in-person."

Other buyers have found time to squeeze in some household chores and workouts in between virtual meetings while working at home, or have taken up new hobbies. Regardless of how and when they are using these hours, they have settled into routines based around virtual meetings and remote work, and enjoy the extra hours added to their lives. And they don’t want to give them up.

The role of in-person moving forward
This is not to say that buyers don’t want any in-person activities. To be sure, many buyers miss the relationship-building and camaraderie that comes when you are engaging with others in a real-life setting. I miss that too. But I've also learned that this can be done virtually, too. 

Last night, example, I spent an hour on a virtual call with a buyer from a large retail chain on the West Coast – not for a content discussion, not for a social media post or anything business-related, but simply because we missed chatting. We spoke about our recent adventures, books we were reading, family stuff, and just basically caught up on the past few months. It was the same type of conversation we would have had over cocktails during an ECRM networking dinner, and it was awesome.

And as we noted above, the sheer growth in the number of buyers embracing virtual, and the fact that they’ve seen it work well for them means that they will continue to seek virtual options even as things start opening up.

So, what does the future of virtual look like for buyers? Most see a hybrid model, where they leverage both virtual and in-person depending on the situation. They will pick their spots. Almost every buyer I spoke with said that meetings with new vendors will likely be virtual moving forward. In-person may be appropriate for later in the process of planning and negotiating the largest and more complex relationships.

"Virtual has definitely proven itself as a viable option for doing business," says Hannah Richardson, Associate Category Manager - Grocery for Hungry Harvest. "We now know that we can get our jobs done efficiently and effectively using the virtual tools that are available, including ECRM Connect. For our largest suppliers, we may meet in-person once a year for planning, but virtual more than meets our needs outside of that."

Gayle Young, OTC Category Manager for Giant Eagle, whom we featured in a previous post, agrees. “I think moving forward, all meetings with new vendors should be virtual, because I want to be respectful of their time and resources."

Hungry Harvest's Hannah Richardson

Clearly, in-person has become more of a "nice to have" than "need to have when" it comes to discovery, evaluation, and purchase, as buyers have demonstrated over the past two years at ECRM sessions.

As for me, virtual has become too ingrained in my life to give it up. And my biggest takeaway from all of the virtual engagement I've had over the past two years is this: You can still be a strong "people person" even when those people are on the other side of a screen!

 

Click here to view the full list of ECRM's category-specific sessions!

 

Joseph Tarnowski

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