The Secrets of the Big four Supermarkets – UK

Well I couldn’t resist this…especially since I was once one of these buyers. What is more interesting for me is that having crossed over to the “other side”, the negotiating styles used by the supermarket buyers (Tesco’s etc) certainly sounded very familiar.

When showing these tactics to Duncan Bullivant, the Chief executive of Henderson Risk Group, a seasoned hostage and kidnap negotiator, the article writes “even he was surprised”. Duncan then goes on to say ”not only do I recognise the phrases, I recognise all these tactics in every aspect of business I have done in the last few years.”

The tactics and behaviours during negotiations have evolved over the years from being more physical, to more psychological. For example, not long ago there was the story of one buyer, who used to attend meetings with a water pistol, and fire water, at the supplier, if the supplier didn’t meet his demands. Is this procurements’ equivalent to water boarding?

One strategy is called the “clock face” which involves 41 sequential steps as the buyer seeks to coax the best price out of the supplier. Tactics include threatening to de-list the supplier (which in reality could lead a supplier going out of business), threatening to go over their head to their bosses, play good guy and bad guy, deliberately misunderstanding something, and just when you think you may have made it, the final stage is the partnership stage. This is where suppliers may be deliberately left to feel the odd one out, before bringing them back into the fold.

Tired? Well, I certainly was after reading it! Quite clearly those more sophisticated suppliers will prevail and there is already evidence of this. Furthermore, as the supply base consolidates, and they become equally sophisticated, an impasse will inevitably be reached. With raw material prices rising so rapidly, I think this may be the final tipping point in relations.

However, back to negotiation techniques used, I can’t help feel that there is a serious case for the automation of the negotiating process. How much more sophisticated can one get? I would argue that in the future, it is imperative to keep it simple. Capacity constraints, and the securing of scarce resources, are going to be the key sourcing variables.

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