Are Aggressive Buyers Stupid or Guilty of Segmentation Errors?

Professor Andrew Cox, founder and leader of the International Institute for Advanced Purchasing & Supply, shares his response to the recent debate over supplier bullying sparked by the Spend Matters post Bullying Suppliers – Unethical and Stupid.

In a recent post (Spend Matters, 21st January) I explained why I disagree with Peter Smith’s view (Spend Matters, 12th January and again in Spend Matters, 26th January) that food companies should be condemned as ‘unethical’ and why appeals to ‘ethics’ as the basis for developing sourcing strategies in general is misguided.

The primary reason for my position is that ethical standards are a contested concept. Peter may have one view of what is acceptable behaviour, but someone else may have a very different view. Take the recent debate about topless girls on page 3 of the Sun newspaper. For some people, these pictures are a good thing. For others, it is immoral and unethical. This encapsulates the tension that exists in society between the two freedoms – positive (freedom to do as we wish without constraint) versus negative (freedom not to be harmed by others).

My own view therefore is that buyers cannot be expected to resolve these ethical dilemmas, although they must be aware of them when developing sourcing strategies, and especially if the consequence is a significant detrimental impact on either their brand identity, or on their longer-term leverage ability with key suppliers.

Does this mean however, as Peter and others have maintained that food buyers are guilty of stupidity? My own view (which I share with David Atkinson) is that, when developing more aggressive sourcing strategies some food companies may have been guilty of serious power and leverage segmentation errors. And it would appear that they are not alone if one considers the recent aggressive policy being adopted by the Crown Commercial Service towards its ConsultancyONE Framework suppliers reported by Peter Smith.

I do not, however, think this is evidence of stupidity, rather an issue associated with a lack of competence and resourcing. It appears to me that these organisations have rushed into decisions without fully segmenting their power and leverage positions across their entire supply base. By doing so, they appear to have developed a ‘knee-jerk’ and ‘one size fits all’ approach to sourcing.

Perhaps the gravest error that any buyer can make is to fail to properly segment their supply base, so that they can fully identify the range of power and leverage scenarios that exist (see diagram below), both within their categories of spend, and also in relation to each and every supplier within them—currently and potentially in the future.

Cox article

Only by understanding the current and future potential power position of each and every supplier in a category of spend, does it become possible to identify two things:

  • Which categories are likely to be the most amenable to particular types of sourcing strategy?
  • Which suppliers (if not all) within a particular category are likely to be the most amenable to successful leveraging, given a particular sourcing strategy?

To put it at its simplest, if a supplier is dominant (i.e. they have a monopoly over a product/service which cannot be easily competed away, and this is highly valued by the buying company’s customers) then it is likely to be a serious error to try to leverage them aggressively within a contractual term, or before awarding a new contract. If the dominant supplier has many alternative options they can either walk away or impose unacceptably high costs on the buyer for their aggressive behaviour.

Conversely, if a supplier is operating in the buyer dominance (few buyers/many suppliers/low switching costs) or independence power positions (many buyers/many suppliers/low switching costs) then the scope to use more aggressive leverage successfully (within or before contracts are signed) is much greater for the buyer. This is because the buyer has many alternative sources of supply, and the supplier must continue to pass value to the buyer if they wish to retain the relationship in the future.

It follows from this that buyers must be extremely careful about analysing the power position of each and every potential supplier, both now and in the future. If they do not, then they may well fall into the trap of adopting a ‘one size fits all’ strategy that can lead to serious supply consequences in the future.

In this light, although we cannot know for certain without analysing these sourcing strategies in detail, the adoption of universal approaches that demand more money for simply being a supplier (Premier Foods’ pay and stay approach), or continually asking for increased discounts after agreeing contractual prices (Tesco), are evidence of overly simplistic sourcing approaches that have not been informed by a sophisticated segmentation of the power and leverage positions of each and every supplier.

That said there is nothing wrong with adopting a universal approach to supplier leverage in the future, but this is only likely to be safe if the power position favours the buyer both now and in the future, and all of the suppliers are operating in a relatively weak bargaining position (which of course never happens).

Given this, it could be that Sainsbury’s strategy of delaying payment terms for all of its construction and fit-out contractors is a sensible strategy. But this would only be the case if all of these suppliers are highly dependent on working with Sainsbury’s, with few alternatives, and none are able to use counter leverage in the future.

It is not clear, however, whether food companies have fully thought through this last point—namely, the need to understand fully and segment the time dimension in power and leverage.

Obviously, while power can move between buyers and suppliers over time, it is important to recognise that this power shift does not occur in all categories of spend in the same way. Sometimes, buyers may be at risk of it, but at other times they may not. One must be careful, therefore, about claiming that suppliers will always be able to take advantage of buyers in the future if they abuse their power now, and vice versa.

Once again this forces us to recognise that a ‘one size fits all’ strategy is normally an error, and that the sophisticated segmentation of power and leverage scenarios is at the heart of successful sourcing strategy development and subsequent supplier relationship management.

Indeed, it is interesting to conclude with the thought that power segmentation within supply chains also demonstrates that the use of aggressive ‘within a contractual term’ and ‘post-contract’ leverage may be much easier for some companies than others.

There is another power-related factor - sourcing strategy brand impact - that buyers have to consider, and one which may be much more problematic for B2C retail companies that sell to end consumers (like Tesco and Sainsbury’s) than for B2B companies (like Premier Foods and 2 Sisters) selling to retailers. Arguably, B2C firms have to be much more aware of the impact of their sourcing strategies on public opinion and customer behaviour than others (and particularly if these are likely to be aired in the press and media).

The problem for Tesco and Sainsbury’s is that their brand reputation is a key factor in their overall business strategy, and this is because they operate in an increasingly competitive market, with new lower-cost entrants challenging their historic market shares and profitability. In such a market, where the switching costs for consumers are relatively low, food retailers must jealously protect their brands.

This means that any consumer perception that a sourcing strategy is a form of ‘unethical bullying’ is likely to have a significant impact on customer behaviour, and potentially on market share and profitability. Arguably, this issue is much less likely to be a constraint for B2B companies (and especially multi-product) companies in the food supply chain. These companies must always be aware of ‘ethical warriors’ wishing to boycott their beans!

While we have only focused here on a few power resources (and there are many more that need to be considered when developing an effective sourcing strategy), these examples highlight the fact that some buyers are evidently not fully competent in understanding power and leverage when developing their sourcing strategies.

This reinforces the view that one of the greatest weaknesses in the procurement profession today is the lack of competence by buyers in fully analysing their current and future power positions, leading to a failure to understand fully the appropriate sourcing options that are available to them to leverage improved value from suppliers.

How this competence gap can be eradicated will, of course, have to be a subject for the future.

Voices (2)

  1. Paul Wright:

    I think the time horizon point is the key one. Peter can write for himself, but I suspect he thinks these Buyers are thinking of today not tomorrow and that is why they are making a mistake. Perhaps one of the buyers could comment if they read this? Anonymously? If so I think we all agree on the issue, just not whether it is a matter of ethics or practicalities.
    My other concern is the potential,abuse of a strong financial position to fight legal challenges for breaking contract – which does not help any of us.

  2. Andrew Cox:

    Point well taken about time Paul.

    Of course large companies have more financial muscle, which is always a power lever in their hands, and especially against small suppliers post-contractually.

    There are, of course, ways for small suppliers to deal with this–if brand/reputational issues are not available they can always force the buyer to ‘post a hostage’ (sorry about he academic language). Unfortunately this cannot be done after the contract is signed, only before.

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