All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1993

Store Sets

Retail merchandisers must fight for shelf space.

The author, who has used a pen name, wishes to remain anonymous.

I’m a retail merchandiser. I fight for shelf space in grocery stores. The business is intensely competitive. I have watched pot-bellied men in their forties get into a fist fight over whose brand should get the better side of the shelf. I’ve seen a thick-skinned, Army-brat mother of teenagers in tears over a single facing in an insignificant store. The frustration casualties are hard to count, but I know of four heart-attack victims in the past year. Often I work all day only to have a competitor come behind me the next day and reset everything to his advantage.

The arena for our contention is the store set, wherein the various sales reps and merchandisers descend on a store to clean it, pull discontinued items, work in new items, and allocate the shelf space.

The question of how best to set a category is complicated by several factors—visibility, traffic flow, and so on—but a major consideration is to make the set tamper-proof. This means I want to separate any standard-shaped packages from an expansion-minded competitor by putting a package of another shape between us. I want to set my stuff horizontally, in most cases, so it’s harder for the other guy to rob me. Most important, I want to be fair. It isn’t that I have a generous nature. I want to be fair because I don’t want to give my competitor an opening to challenge my set.

I have brands in five categories. If I beat the competition to the store, my first task is to decide which category is the most critical. I try to anticipate which of my competitors may show up, and where their priorities will lie. I make contingency plans in case I guess wrong. I grab the category where I have the most to gain or lose.

At any given set I may have two major competitors and three or four minor competitors. If the competition sends a greenhorn, I’ll end up calling all the shots, and he’ll end up stocking the shelf. A standard question among competitors who meet as strangers at a set is, “So how long you been with Procter?” Or: “How long have you been with Kimberly?” But the question is asked as a formality, or to confirm the original impression, because it is immediately apparent how long everybody’s been around. A veteran paired with a newcomer will always take over the set within a matter of seconds, even without conscious contrivance. The dynamics of cooperation and challenge are subtle, and it takes a while to learn to work the machinery. If the newcomer sticks around for six months, he’ll be trouble. He’ll consult higher authority to settle minor disputes. He’ll fight over trivialities. He’s sure he’s being taken advantage of; he just doesn’t know how. After a year he’ll start to get the hang of things. He’ll start picking up your stratagems. One morning you’ll arrive at an eight-o’clock set at quarter past seven and find him already at work. You’ll know then that you have a worthy antagonist.

Despite the cutthroat nature of the business, old competitors work well together. They have learned that it’s better to work things out between themselves rather than bring in the set supervisor, who may, in irritation, cast a decision to the detriment of both. I often eat lunch with my fiercest competitors, who have bitterly cursed me to my face and vice-versa, and from whom I’ve had much more training than from my own company. It is a relationship similar to an old contentious marriage, where each partner anticipates the other’s argument. The fighting tends to be fast and efficient. Ninety percent of the time we are civil, even friendly, and we generally enjoy each other’s company. But we’re all ready to play hardball at a moment’s notice.

Seen as a game, the store set is a combination of the German card game skat and football. It is like skat because the configuration of allies and enemies is constantly in flux. It is physically demanding because the set starts at seven or eight a.m. and may be more than a hundred miles away. I’ve left home as early as four-thirty to get to a distant set ahead of competition who lived in that town. The average set takes eight or ten hours, including drive time, but fourteen isn’t uncommon. The work is usually light, but at its worst it is grueling and endless. I’ve had easier days roofing houses.

My accounts are all independents and small chains. There was a time when I could have opted for a more staid job working big chain accounts where decisions are made at a regional level and sections are set by schematic diagrams called planograms. I chose the independents because chaos offers security: I can’t be replaced by a robot. The people I work with feel the same way. Better to fight for a living, and to have opportunities for improvisation, than to be at the mercy of paper-pushers.

There is no altruism among us. Regardless of how well disposed we may feel toward one another, there is no charity on the set, only expedient courtesies and temporary alliances. The only reason I don’t take the whole shelf for myself is I can’t get away with it, and I know if I tried I would lose my credibility with the store owner or set supervisor. My competitors are of the same make, and I expect no different. We have no common cause.

And yet, in our aggregate, it is sharks like us, along with commercial real estate speculators, futures dealers, and other such quasi-parlous types, who ensure that when you go grocery shopping you don’t have to drive forty miles to stand in line for hours to buy whatever happens to be on the shelf at an unpredictable price. We are the ones who keep the junk off the shelf, and make sure the best products are in stock. To apotheosize the job to a metaphysical level, we are paid for our recognition of the value of time and space. In those parts of the world where we do not exist, you will find starvation. It is the drive for market share, the drive to maintain and increase shelf space, that is the impetus for continual improvement of the product. []

“Competition is nothing but freedom looked at upside down. In a market where buyers are free to shop around, sellers must outdo each other to get and keep customers. Through competition there is produced the maximum of goods and services that the public wants most.”

—Hart Buck