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Death of the jewellery sales rep

The best sales reps are worth their weight in gold. Unfortunately, their days might be numbered. COLEBY NICHOLSON calls on jewellers to consider life without the road warriors.

One of the things often lamented in retailing is the death of the local sales rep. I often hear complaints from both sides regarding this – retailers say there are no sales reps visiting them anymore (or at least the number has greatly declined); suppliers say they can’t afford to have reps on the road.

It’s true that business-to-business (B2B) selling has changed greatly over the past 5–10 years. Let’s face it, depending on your industry; if your job title is ‘sales representative’ or ‘agent’ then your days are probably numbered.

There are many reasons for that, most notably the internet, which has affected all industries, especially where there are a large number of smaller clients in diverse locations. The jewellery sector is a good example and retailers and suppliers often bemoan the changes that have brought about a decline in the number of road warriors, as travelling sales reps are often called, because of cost pressures.

Others reasons specific to our sector include retirement, store closures and security issues.
Worse, security seems to be an ever-increasing problem given the number of news stories about robberies, including armed attacks against jewellery supplier sales reps.

The irony is that a good sales rep is worth his or her weight in gold, no pun intended. The trouble has always been finding a good sales rep!

I have previously written about how often I receive phone calls asking, “Do you know a good sales rep looking for a job?” My response has always been, “No. If they’re a good sales rep they aren’t looking for a job.”

The caller gets the point, and my own view has always been that the best sales person, or the one you’d like to employ, already has a job.

That aside, retail buyers have also changed, and with competing daily pressures they’re now finding it difficult to allocate time to see sales reps, often believing they don’t need to order more product.

Online ordering

Retailers have pushed their suppliers towards online ordering, which is fine as long as the technology is used. Suppliers say that when re-ordering is left to retailers, many factors get in the way of them sitting down to re-order products online. As such, the technology has not been put to proper use.

At least with a sales rep visiting a store, the retailer has to focus their attention on ordering and can this way be guided and helped by a ‘real person’ with expertise.

Background reading: Ignore bread-and-butter jewellery at your own risk

The trend in declining numbers of sales reps is not new but it has reached a significant level. For example, a recent report by Forrester Research predicts that one million B2B salespeople will lose their jobs in the US to self-service, online ordering by 2020.

The report says 75 per cent of B2B buyers believe buying from a website is more convenient than buying from a sales rep while 93 per cent say they prefer buying online rather than from a salesperson when they’ve already decided what to buy.

All of these things are true if the process is a simple order-taking transaction. That is, just as your days are numbered if your job title is ‘rep’ or ‘agent’, your days are also numbered if your tasks at head office are ‘order taker’ or ‘phone sales’ – technology can already do those jobs, sometimes better.

What the internet cannot replace is the sales expert, the person who looks to the long term and manages the account for the best outcome for both parties – buyer and seller. The sales expert has superior knowledge and advice and can provide the buyer with solutions.

A good sales rep works for the store. They are not there for a quick sale, which has been one of the industry’s problems with the commission-only sales agent model – if there’s no sale there is no commission. The road warriors need to cover their expenses so the pressure is on to get sales at any cost.

Of course that’s not true of all sales reps (employee or contractor) but when we add all the changes taking place in the industry, even the best sales reps on the road are affected by technology and the drive to cut costs.

So back to how all this affects the independent jewellery store, especially those in regional and rural areas. It means a service level that was often taken for granted is on the verge of extinction.

That’s not so true for branded product but when it comes to the bread-and-butter items that are the mainstay of a jeweller’s turnover, the road warrior days may, sadly, be all but over.

Retailers should consider this future because the best sales reps make you money; they are your partners, while the very best rep can often be more ‘profitable’ than your staff!

Coleby Nicholson

Former Publisher • Jeweller Magazine

Coleby Nicholson launched Jeweller in 1996 and was also publisher and managing editor from 2006 to 2019. He has covered the jewellery industry for more than 20 years and specialises in business-to-business aspects of the industry.

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