Market dynamics undergo revolutionary changes

Even a decade ago, at most grocer outlets the familiar sight was, a man carrying a large ledger book scanning the shelves and making entries. On eight-out-of-ten occasions, the retailer would try to fend off the excess stock that the ledger-man, otherwise called a sales representative, was pushing down the shelves.

Salesmen are renowned to try and push more than possible, offering fancy credit terms to retailers, just to offload stock and hit that magic monthly target. One can’t really blame them, though. Compared to the flashy marketing function sales has often been looked upon as ordinary. Right from remembering the numbers of SKUs to be sold, to making a new product sales pitch to the art of product display, and of course, taking copious notes in that dog-eared ledger, salesmen have had to be there, and expected to do that.

Now, for most salesmen, that’s a postcard from the past. The ledgers have been replaced by PDAs (personal digital assistant). Even before they enter the shop, the salesmen have a finger on the pulse of the store. A few clicks on the PDA and the salesman know the transaction history of the store.

He knows what is selling, how much he has sold and his target. While the sales person still has the onerous task of selling to the retailer, the PDA is his force multiplier, feeding vital information for the ensuing negotiations. It’s technology to the rescue for people who form the first line of offence for companies.

Companies are undertaking efforts to automate the sales force and improve the efficiency of the sales function. Automation is just one part and the other side is about how the changing retail landscape is forcing companies to take a real hard and close re-look at the sales function. While automation is still the starting point, the changes being undertaken touch each and every aspect of selling right from the distributor and stockist, to the shopkeeper.

Over the last few years, most FMCG companies invested in creating IT backbones and central servers. Now, they are linking up to the front end. The link-up enables the sales force to access relevant information related to catchment product off take and total sales. Take consumer goods major Hindustan Unilever (HUL) as an example.

The next big leap is at the front end, where 9,000 HUL’s distributor sales representatives in urban markets have been provided hand held devices (HHDs). The HHDs facilitate not just electronic order booking, but also helps the sales representatives to make a far more disciplined sales call. The device can leverage database usage for a more intelligent sale. Similarly, Marico, the makers of Parachute and Saffola, which began prototyping the use of intelligent PDAs for its sales force in Mumbai last year has now taken the initiative to seven major metros across India.

The PDAs connected to the central IT backbone is used by the sales force to access real time data instantly and take decisions quickly. The PDA is a decision support system which has made the sales call scientific and sharply focused.

It is not just the PDAs which is the front end device provided to the sales force. Companies like Ruchi Soya and even toy maker Mattel have provided laptops to their sales force. The sales force today has to become an information power house. One needs to know more than the customer. Technology helps to do that.

That’s because the market scenario is vastly different from what it was a decade back, when a single trade channel and lower number of SKUs did not make a compelling case to improve efficiency. Currently, with segmentation of trade channels, large number of SKUs and new product launches, upgrading the skill sets has become necessary to survive in an open market.