Small businesses have 10 strategies I have previously summarised, that they can deploy in various ways to build success with the retail gorillas. Collaboration is the 7th, and often the most challenging, as the other parties to the collaboration are not by definition, under your control.

Successful collaboration relies, when all the jargon is scraped away, on both parties recognising at all levels where the collaboration ‘touches’ each other, that their individual best interests are best served  by serving the best interests of the collaboration.

Having just claimed to have scraped away the jargon, that is a mouthful. However, the idea of the ‘commons‘ must be central to any collaborative exercise.

A key component of supermarkets business model is the reduction of transaction costs.  They only want to deal with large suppliers, as it reduces their supply chain costs per transaction, delivering substantial efficiencies. It therefore follows that suppliers collaborating to generate the economies of scale to enable  them to play by the supermarket rules, makes sense.

The flip side of course is that supermarkets use their power to get the best deal for themselves, subjecting suppliers to an ongoing game best described by the prisoners dilemma.  In effect, if you do not give them what they are currently demanding, they will find a supplier who will.

Small suppliers to supermarkets have to find ways to apply some leverage to their opportunities. Collaborating to reduce various forms of transaction and supply chain costs , and marketing, as well as pooling data and data capabilities are logical if challenging tasks.

Many produce suppliers have found ways to collaborate, but their produce is unbranded, and commoditised by retailers, so they lack the consumer leverage that is enabled by a brand.

Branded packaged goods may have some consumer leverage, but collaborating with their competitors for shelf space if not for the consumers dollar is enormously challenging, but nevertheless possible.

Digital tools now make the communication component of a collaboration, which is profoundly important, relatively easy if the will is there.

Opportunities fall in three main areas:

      1. Supply chain.  Collaboration to buy common inputs like boxes, freight, and commodity ingredient purchases like sugar, are increasingly common, particularly in regional areas where you have a number of small suppliers close by, all subjected to distance loadings of some sort. Contract packing a complete product is increasingly being used as it removes the need for investment by the marketer, and utilises unused capacity for the packer.
      2. Data acquisition, management and analysis. Lots of variations here, but everyone needs data to participate, even in the most basic of category and performance reviews. Scan data acquisition is challenging as there are revenues and margins attached to both the retailers and their data wholesalers that will be protected. However, when that hurdle is run, managing data is an activity that responds well to scale as the costs are in the overheads, the marginal costs of data management are very small, and can all be outsourced.  Data analysis is more challenging, but interpretations of data can be very specific. Turning data into useable market intelligence is the end game, and is not necessarily compromised by collaboration on the basic components, acquisition of raw scan data, storage and distribution of the data, and even generic information like market sizes, share movements, category drivers, and the like.
      3. Marketing. Collaboration in marketing efforts need to explicitly exclude any hint of price collaboration, collusion, which of course is illegal. However, there are numerous ways small businesses can collaborate in their marketing programs to compete, not only reducing their costs but also increasing their opportunity to appeal to customers. Complementary products, joint promotions of various types and locations, collaborative and complementary media placement,  the list of possibilities is limited only by imagination.  There are complications of packaging, product numbers, and the rest,  but they can be relatively easily overcome.

The real challenge is to visualise the future, see industries and their structures in new and different ways, and to recognise the opportunities that are there, and find collaborative ways to leverage them.