One of my favourite thinkers from the 20th century is Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I’ve read a lot about her life and her advocacy and have found her writings and works inspiring.

Recently, as the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council has been speaking about making sure our industry’s merchandisers and sales reps are treated with greater respect in stores, I was reminded of a famous quote attributed to her: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. She was making the point that regardless of criticism and attempts to belittle or bully, ultimately we are all responsible for our own reactions to the actions of others.

I admit I have never worked as either a merchandiser or a sales rep, so I can only imagine the pressure they might face as they call on stores – the pressure of having to pack in many visits or fill many shelves in a short space of time, the regular game of find the ladder and stock. It looks like hard work, and in addition, many merchandisers work in the middle of the night for the minimum wage.

Over the years, I have heard many disappointing stories, ranging between unnecessary rudeness to bullying and harassment. Good companies deal with these reported issues themselves, raising issues with the stores, but a recent case of appalling behaviour got me thinking that the Food & Grocery Council could do more to remind everyone involved what is not okay behaviour. We need to make clear that merchandisers and reps are also an important part of the grocery family.

Now, I want to make clear that there are fantastic supermarkets where the people culture is impressive. However, a minority of stores have a culture problem where poor treatment is the norm. Abuse can be verbal (shouting, swearing etc), but it can also be non-verbal, such as making reps wait many hours for appointments.

Over the years we’ve seen doctors and dentists make big improvements with managing their appointment schedules, yet professional time management is clearly still a challenge for many store buyers.

The costs to grocery suppliers for this wasted time are significant. Waiting for hours on end must be soul destroying, if not just downright boring, even if there are emails to catch up on.  It’s hard not to conclude that making a rep wait more than three hours for a meeting is evidence in itself of the imbalance of power in this part of our industry.

The Food & Grocery Council is encouraging members to raise serial time-management problems with the stores concerned. If they are not comfortable doing this for fear of retribution, then we will be happy to approach head offices or banner leaders on their behalf.

Where there are instances of verbal abuse and other forms of poor treatment, companies should encourage their merchandisers and reps to raise concerns, in a safe way. These people are the lifeblood of our industry and it’s important they feel empowered to speak up, as Eleanor Roosevelt would have urged.

I suspect some of this behaviour is accepted because some people in store believe it’s normal – a part of the robust grocery industry culture. But the world and work environments have changed, and while grocery will remain a fast-paced, action-packed environment, there is now a greater responsibility for employers to lift the professionalism.

Though I have been talking about this issue from a supplier perspective, I’m also aware that store employees also face poor treatment from shoppers, being spoken to with words I can’t repeat here as well as subjected to physical assaults.

So, my point is relevant not just to suppliers but the whole supermarket environment, where we should aspire to higher levels of support, professionalism, respect and courtesy.

(originally published in FMCG Business)

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