Office Hours Expert Joseph Tarnowski has multiple industry experience when it comes to watching companies do what goes right and what goes wrong in terms of retail and marketing. With a degree in Trade Media Journalism, he has had extensive experience working in the food industry, general merchandise, health & beauty, and pharmaceutical industry. He is with Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing (ECRM), a company that helps connect retail buyers to prospective retail suppliers such as you product launchers. We have known Joe through ECRM, where we used their time-saving and cost-efficient service as buyers in the contract furniture industry. Know the basics of getting a great match between buyers and suppliers in retail by touching base with Joe, who will share his no-nonsense know-how on connecting brands to retail buyers.

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I have a great new experts introduce you. I’ve got Joe Tarnowski from ECRM and RangeMe. A lot of experts have tons of experience and Joe’s one of them. We’re going to find out how he got that experience. We’re going to find out what ECRM stands for. I know what they do but I can’t remember what that stands for. Joe is here because he has loads of experience across multiple product categories, watching companies, presented buyers, watching things happen in the industry in a way that he’s got this unique perch of seeing what goes right and what goes wrong. He’s here to protect you from those hazards of product launching. Joe, welcome.

Thanks for inviting me.

We’re so glad to have you as an expert here. We’ve been on our Flashtopic on Tim Bush’s podcast, On The Shelf. We’ve been doing that maybe six months or something like that and I don’t know your story. I don’t know how you got started in the industry. I know what an expert you are, but we dive in and we get talking about stuff that we forget that we weren’t personally acquainted before that.

The first podcast that I did with Tim is when I gave my background. My background is in trade media journalism. I’ve been covering retail and food service prior to coming on board at ECRM for about 24 years. We’re talking food service retail on a magazine called FoodService Director, then grocery retail with Progressive Grocer. I was with them for about fourteen years. I was also writing for Convenience Store News, then The Gourmet Retailer. A lot of food retail and even now in my role on ECRM, I still dabble a little bit and do some more writing for the trades including Drug Store News, Chain Drug Review and MMR. I like to keep my hand in the game. This way, they trust me as a marketer.

That explains even more while you’re here to compliment the skills because I always joke about this but I don’t do food and fashion. I’ve done every product category under the sun and I haven’t done like fashion accessories because I have a textile background. I don’t do food and fashion because you have taste, speed to market, and FDA involvement. There’s a whole bunch of stuff. You’ve got a broad range of experience that compliments that.

I don’t do the fashion but I definitely went deep in food. Over the years, the product categories that I’ve covered have been food, general merchandise, health and beauty care, and pharmacy. When I came on board with ECRM, those are the specific areas that they cover.

Tell us what ECRM stands for.

The name is old. It’s about a 25-year-old company and ECRM officially stands for Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing.

That’s been the name all along?

That’s been the name for the past ten years or so. It was something else previously, I don’t remember what it was.

Do they have something with market gate in it or something like that?

The website platform for ECRM is MarketGate. There have been a couple of other iterations of the name in the past. It was something with the efficient consumer category management. I don’t remember what it was.

Collaborative marketing is exactly what we’re here to do. You guys fit in perfectly with that.

Most of the categories that they cover are categories that I have reported on over the past 25 years. What ECRM does in a nutshell is we help retail buyers and food service operators to discover new products and help plan their categories. We do that in a few ways. The flipside of that is on the supplier side where we help connect these suppliers with these retailers and food service operators.

By suppliers, they mean new product launchers. People with product brands.

Mostly, I’d say 95% new and emerging products. They’re not in retail yet. Maybe most of them are just on Amazon or they’re selling online. They’re looking to get on the shelves of retail chains. That’s what we do is we help make those connections and we do it in a deep way. On a basic level, we have our more than 60 category focus sessions. That’s where we will bring together all of these suppliers and all of these retail category buyers and we will have private pre-scheduled meetings. This is a very basic level. It gets a lot deeper than that. I’m not going to go too much into the detail.

PLH Joseph Tarnowski | Retail Buyers

Retail Buyers: RangeMe is very deeply connected with buyers.

The service that you guys provide from a buyer’s perspective is amazing. I was a buyer. It was in a contract furniture industry, but I was a buyer there. This is early email that I’m talking about when I was acting as a buyer. The inundation with emails and solicitations and all of this is something that is so overwhelming to these retail buyers that they can’t possibly vet them, source them or take all the time. ECRM is providing that middle ground and conduit to that so that they understand who’s qualified, who would fit their model before they ever take the meetings.

The time saving for a buyer is huge, but the quality that they do in terms of qualifying is amazing as well. This is not like they’re in your way that they’re not. That’s why I don’t love MarketGate because it’s not a gate, but it’s understanding “Are you ready yet? Are you there yet?” ECRM is providing that buyer side saying, “You should meet with these people. They are ready. They are the right kind for you.” That’s an invaluable resource because there’s not enough time in the day for most buyers to get all their emails.

That is what we provide is efficiency, effectiveness and relevance more than everything. We make sure that we were vetting everybody and we’re only putting the relevant suppliers in front of these buyers. The thing is outside of our four sessions, we have 60 sessions. They’re category-base divided up into five divisions. We’ll have grocery, things like candy, snacks and beverages. We’ll also have food service, campus food service, commercial, non-commercial food service and retail food service. Then we’ll have general merchandise is your bread and butter. We’ll have sessions like pet, toy, housewares, household, consumer technology. Then we’ll also have health and beauty care and that spans a lot of categories so as skincare, hair care, cosmetics of vitamins and supplements OTC. Then finally, we have pharmacy and medical markets. We’ll cover a specialty pharmacy, diabetes, pharmacy technology.

Across all of those, we will connect the buyers and sellers but it goes beyond that. We’re taking a lot of the busy work off of the retailers hands, because the process starts well in advance of the in person sessions. We will work with the buyers. When a buyer signs up, they’ll let us know what their focus is. They’ll let us know the subcategories that they’re interested in, any particular certifications. Based on that, we will match them up with the suppliers who on their end when they register, they are indicating which categories and subcategories they take off.

This is the number one thing when you’re a new brand. This is an invaluable resource because you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why you’re here on Product Launch Hazzards likely because you do realize that you don’t know a whole ton of stuff. One of the things that you don’t know is all the information that a buyer wants to know about you. It’s that information that might be missing that you just didn’t know you needed, like a certification is required. You could have gotten it before that meeting and now you’re ruled out and you’re done. You could have been prepared for that. That’s something that because you know ahead of time, because they’re filling out this very detailed profile and all the information and all the boxes get checked. That’s different. That’s part of why you guys bought or merged with RangeMe?

We acquired RangeMe. RangeMe is a product discovery platform that captures a lot. They have thousands of buyers from major retail chains using the platform and they gather and they have 125,000 suppliers. Primarily new and emerging brands across all of those categories that we already are working with on ECRM. What’s cool is the platform that was amazing. It’s very slick. It captures all that information so that when the buyer looks at a supplier profile, all of that information is right there. The other advantage that RangeMe has is RangeMe is very deeply connected with buyers. They are the inbound product discovery platform for about 50 major retail chain. In other words, if you go to Target’s website and you click on the link for vendors to submit products, RangeMe handles the entire backend of all the inbound product submission. For Albertsons, Whole Foods, for CVS, for a lot of major retails, all of their buyers or on the platform and what happens is if suppliers submit through those lengths, it’s routed to the appropriate buyer by the appropriate retailer.

It’s like, “Alert. There’s something new and innovative that meets your criteria.” It’s a matching service.

It eliminates all of those things you talked about. They don’t have to worry about the phone calls and they don’t have to worry about the emails. We’ll even give them a business card that they can take the trade shows. If they meet with somebody, they could just give him the card that says and it doesn’t give out their information so that this way they upload their product information through the platform.

That’s an insider secret you may not know. Buyer’s emails are hidden. A lot of times, people get smart and think that they can defeat the system by figuring out what the emails are. I know a lot of companies that have their buyer emails are slightly different than the company standard for that reason. If you ended up emailing that address, it ends up at assistance desk somewhere into basically a black hole because otherwise they would never get their work done.

Time is such a premium with them so that’s what we do. We help them get the most of their time investment because they can be out of the office for too long. We’ll do that and we’ll do it in other ways too. Aside from those 60 plus category-based sessions, we will do more custom-related sessions for some of these larger retailers. We call them Efficient Strategic Summits. This is where the integration of RangeMe is coming into play. A good example is what we did with Wakefern, an Own Brands Summit. What we did was we put the word out. I’ve made some content around it. We put press releases out in the trade media. We sent email blast to all the databases and the RangeMe list inviting suppliers that qualify to submit their application to participate. Then what happened was they had to apply through the RangeMe platform. We had a custom link. Then once they applied, the products were routed to the correct buyers at Wakefern Then they vetted them based on whether it was something that they wanted. We had a thousand people applied and then once they narrowed it down there were 250 suppliers that were invited to a custom session that was held on the Wakefern offices where they had about 26 buyers participate.

That’s an amazing opportunity because a lot of times you’re out there submitting your toy, your game, your furniture, whatever it might be. You’re out there doing that and you have no idea if someone’s interested or open to bias the term in the industry. Here they’re asking you to set up the summit so they’re clearly interested in finding new and innovative products within this category under this criteria. Being able to participate, 250 sounds like a lot of people that compete with but it’s 250 who are very focused with an opportunity to get bought and that’s huge.

The thing is we help eliminate all the busy work in getting that done from the point of putting the word out there. We run six trade publications as well as our website, LinkedIn and all that, but then vetting, bringing everything into the system so they can vet everything on the platform. It’s very slick, it’s easy to navigate. Then at the physical meetings themselves, we manage that for them. They just show up and it’s close to their offices. We schedule it so that the buyers can come in, meet with them and then go back. It’s all about efficiency. It’s part of they are looking to grow their own brands and business. We do this with a lot of different retailers throughout the year. We’ve done Supplier Diversity Summit with Walgreen. These are all public knowledge. We’ve talked about the trades. That’s one of the ways that we’re working ECRM and RangeMe together. RangeMe more and more is becoming the platform where the retailers, where they are at the summits or our sessions to vet these products and suppliers who they’re going to be meeting with.

[Tweet “The best source of information is your peers. Just get everybody together.”]

We interviewed Nicky Jackson, who invented RangeMe. She’s the Founder of it and she came out of the world of working in consumer products in the beauty industry. What I found was so interesting as she had both perspectives. She went out in the world wanting to do her own beauty products and then found out how she was an insider and she couldn’t even get a meeting. She said, “This is ridiculous because there was some list of things I didn’t know if I wasn’t going to present to my own company, which is the only company I knew.” That’s where RangeMe came about. I love the thought that she came from both sides of the viewpoint to understanding what’s valuable for the buyer side and what’s valuable for the product and brand side and how you can bring those two together so that it’s much more efficient at the end of the day for both sides and a much better fit. Getting on a shelf is a risky thing. It’s risky for you as a product brand because you might have a lot of inventory invested in that and it doesn’t work because it’s just not a good fit. They didn’t ask the questions of you and you didn’t ask the questions of them. That can be problematic and of course it’s very risky on the buyer’s side because they can’t afford to not be turning inventory at the rate at which they need to keep their jobs.

We’re all about that, that relevance. It even gets into the ECRM MarketGate platform is a custom-built platform and it’s evolved over the 24 years that we’ve been around. Here’s an example. When the buyer is going through the list of suppliers with one of our account managers, the other thing about ECRM is we are incredibly high touch. Everybody who registers is assigned an account manager, walks them through their schedules a couple of times as it gets closer to the session to make sure that it’s relevant.

For example, we’ve built in things like if let’s say a buyer is looking for prestige beauty and sees that the initial ask matches, but one of the suppliers is known for value products. Then the buyer will say, “No, I don’t want to meet with this person because they have a value. We’re looking for prestige.” They have an opportunity let’s say that value supplier came out with a new line of prestige products that the retailer doesn’t know about. They can rebut through our system and say, “I know you know we’re a value supplier, but we launched this new line of prestige products you might be interested in.” It’s so tailored to make sure that when they get together in person that that time is well-spent both on the supplier side and on the buyer’s side.

It’s way more than a trade show, but you have educational platforms for both sides involved in every single event that you guys run and you run events pretty much every other month or every month, if I’m not wrong?

We scheduled them according to where and when the major buyers are doing their planning. Sometimes they lumped together in ways. Depending on the buyer’s schedule. October is not as big. The first half a year is heavy and then the summer.

October is big on my end because that’s usually when we do all the supplier audits in Asia or the factory audits in Asia. That’s when they decide to travel on Asia.

It’s funny you mentioned trade show that we’re not a trade show. We’ve repositioned ourselves against that. Tim will be the first to tell you as far as like, “They’re not events, they’re sessions.” Sure, the in person meeting is just that the people see, but there’s so much planning and stuff that goes on in the frontend and then the follow-up side that were just an extension of the retailers’ category planning and product discovery efforts. We try to eliminate trade show or event from all of our marketing, all of our content. There are a lot of educational opportunities that we do. I’m involved with a lot of them because I used to set them up when I was with the trade media. We’ll bring in a lot of speakers.

We usually have at least one or two educational sessions at each of these. Sometimes it’s a market research companies like Nielsen or IRI or NPD or Mintel. We’ll have them talk about trends based on their data. We may also have industry experts such as Tim came in and spoke specifically about selling, where we may have customers come in and I love doing retailer panel discussions. We got a few retailers on the panel and have them talk about trends that they’re seeing and how it’s impacting their businesses. We like to do different types of things. We’ll try to do it. We want to make each of our sessions a place where people are there to engage with each other. You have the meetings themselves and the meetings are learning experience. One thing that I always say to the supplier, especially from every meeting with a buyer, you should come away with something, whether it’s a follow-up that could lead to a sale or information that’s going to improve their business. You should get at least one of those things from every single meeting.

It’s that model that no is a good result. Learn something that you didn’t have and now next time you’re going to be even more focused in who you approach.

You knock it out of the park at your next year’s meeting with them. That’s the thing retailers would say. I’d rather have them take my feedback, work it into the products and then come and hit a grand slam the next year. It’s an ongoing thing, but we also provide lots of networking opportunities where you have your breakfast, your lunch, and we’ll have cocktails and then dinner. Usually, it’s all geared to keep the group together, whether it’s a ballroom where we’ll have a performer and then we’ll have the massage chairs. We want to force them to that networking. We’ll do an offsite at a bowling alley or Topgolf or someplace like that. The key is on both sides. The suppliers love the opportunity to network with the buyers during these functions, especially the buyers they may not have met with or that they met with and they want to further the conversation, but the buyers want to meet and network with other buyers because they compare notes. They’ll bounce ideas off of each other and they’ll get a lot of good intelligence on the category from each other. I always say the best source of information is your peers. Just get everybody together. I’m a big fan of round tables.

PLH Joseph Tarnowski | Retail Buyers

Retail Buyers: There are a lot of educational opportunities that we do.

You don’t realize it unless you’ve been on the other side of it. As a buyer, you don’t have a lot of time to do the research in your market category necessary. You actually will rely a lot in your suppliers providing that information. You know it’s a salesy pitch when you hear it from them so you’ve got to find another way to vet that. Talk to their buyers because actually everybody knows each other. I’d been in around office furniture. That was my broader category where I knew every buyer in every store, plus I was an outside consultant. They would call me and they would say, “What are you hearing about materials? Are you hearing darker woods are in?” They wouldn’t ask me that because they knew I was touching other stores and so it was their way of getting at “What are the other stores doing?” They want that info, they just don’t have a lot of opportunity to get it.

Just the sheer number of people that are at our sessions to actually crowdsource insights from them. During each of our sessions, we have what we call exit interviews. Where a member of our staff meets with each attendee for a 20-minute meeting to get feedback on what we can improve. We’re talking dozens of these meetings every session and we act on them. We have a meeting at the end of the session where we get all that feedback loop to say, “How can we make this better?” Whether it involves tech, whether it involves a process thing or people or service thing. We’re constantly doing that and that’s why we’ve evolved the way we have. The cool thing is I would insert a question in there and I inserted it for buyers because suppliers will also, “They’re going to answer in a way that best suits them. I put it in the question so I can crowdsource insights. It might be the question is, “What products blew you away and why?” In the answer to that question, I’ll get the trend that’s happening.

You’ll start to see it happen from exit interview to exit interview.

One retailer would say, “I love this grab-and-go thing because it is vegan and convenient. Plant-based is a trend, portability is a trend, on the go. We get over two dozen answers on those questions and it gives me a good idea of where to go with my content. That’s where I come in is my role with ECRM is twofold. One is to create content that keeps our current customers engaged with us throughout the year.

That’s on both sides, on the buyer side and the supplier side.

We talked about the retailers, food service operators, and suppliers. To keep them engaged with us in between the in-person meetings, we do have content there but also in between to keep us on their radar. Then obviously also to help draw new potential customers into the fold by letting people know that we’re here because the industry is so big and you get some of these startups that they come out of nowhere. They’re not necessarily going to know who we are right off the bat until they start getting out there. I’ve seen so many instances, especially on LinkedIn. We’ll see somebody coming in that I may have connected with say, “I didn’t know you guys were affiliated with RangeMe. Tell us more about what you guys do.” We’re getting people coming in from there or from our content floating around. The cool thing is, since we have so much staff that’s dedicated to these categories, our staff almost acts as micro influencers within their domain. They’re posting their own content.

Health and beauty and toy and whatever experience they have. Product Launchers, I want you to pay attention to Joe’s profile because on Joe’s profile are links to that. Make sure you friend him on LinkedIn because I know that’s where he posted the best information. The other thing that I want to make sure that we do, and I will do that as a follow up with this is he has mentioned six trade publications. One of the things that I talk about in other episodes many times is that I call it the trifecta and one of the things is to get good coverage to trade publications that a buyer actually cares about. You have so much connection with buyers, I guarantee you probably one of these six trade publications, they probably read and that’s a good place for it.

[Tweet “I’d rather have them take my feedback, work it into the products and then come and hit a grand slam the next year.”]

That’s something that I’d like to talk to your audience about in future sessions is the content side of this. How to leverage LinkedIn to get your product out there, to get noticed. How to get a guest column accepted by a trade media editor. Things that they could do, different ways that they can get involved to make themselves into an expert. I’ve had people that they’re experts at 40 years in a retail company, but they were afraid to voice their opinion in a column and I’m like, “They’re not many people around that know that business better than you.” I definitely love to make myself available for your audience for anything content related, anything if they have questions. I’ve sat in on hundreds and hundreds of meetings with buyers and sellers at our sessions. I’ve seen great ones. I’ve seen bad ones. I can give you some advice on how to avoid making it a bad one.

Product Launchers, make sure you tune into Joe’s next Office Hours, which will be coming up in within 30 days. Every expert is going to do one a month. You’ll be finding him there and you could also reach out to him through the profile at any time. All his contact information is there. We’re not getting anyone here. We want to make sure you have direct contacts to these experts because they want to help you. They want to help you grow. They want to help you avoid the hazards of product launching, the really dangerous ones. They want to help guide you into the things that you don’t know yet. Thanks, Joe, for joining us as an expert and we look forward to more Office Hours with you.

I look forward to working with everybody.

Tune in to Joseph Tarnowski next Office Hours. Connect with and find out more about Joseph Tarnowski in our Experts Directory.

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