A rose by any other name...stinks
October 12, 2001,
Once upon a time when I was a fresh-faced recruit to the world of retail trade publishing, I was assigned to attend a glitzy awards banquet celebrating retail/vendor partnerships.
A long evening? You betcha. But the excitement of the winners was palpable and impressive, and the retailers who addressed the crowd spoke in sincere and ringing tones about the importance of their vendor partners. It was — no joke — inspirational.
And as I was sitting there thinking to myself, "Gee, what a great thing this partnership idea is," a nominee to my right leaned over to his colleague and whispered through gritted teeth, "Just once I'd like somebody to stand up there and admit that 'partnership' is just a polite word for screwing the vendors."
I've thought about that incident many times in the years since. Retailers still expound in earnest tones upon the importance of partnership. And vendors, with increasing frequency, continue to complain that partnership has eroded into more of a master/slave relationship.
Ask a retailer what he or she makes of this state of affairs and most will say 1) that their own outfit is pretty reasonable in its requirements; and 2) if a vendor company doesn't want to do business on such terms, it's free to go elsewhere.
If that sentiment sounds a bit disingenuous, it is. For it fails to take into account that the top 10 retailers of home textiles sell $12.7 billion in goods each year — roughly equal to the sales done by the next 26 retailers combined.
On the other hand, one of the perks that comes with achieving critical mass as a retailer is the power to have it your way. Having prevailed through the hardscrabble years of establishing a nameplate and waiting at the back of the queue when vendors planned their production schedules, top retailers are not unjustified in negotiating the best terms they possibly can.
It's the growing regularity of non-negotiated levies to siphon off vendor money that is causing considerable pain.
And frankly, it's dirty business. If your software goes into a meltdown that causes unfair charges to be laid on a vendor, that's one thing. When your company routinely issues bogus charges to plump its cash flow at the expense of your vendor "partner," that, ladies and gentleman, is a screw job.
Listen, is it realistic to expect a retailer hell bent on shoring up profitability to give an inch? Probably not. But sitting where we now sit — with the state of international relations and trans-national trade in a potential flux — retailers might want to re-evaluate their relationships with vendors. The concept of real partnership might just become worthwhile again.