NONFOODS: Making every minute count

Eight minutes. That's the length of most controlled casual conferences (CCCs) that occur during the two General Merchandise Distributors Council events -- the general merchandise conference in late spring and the HBC event in early fall. At an average talking speed of two to four words per second, this means that suppliers and wholesaler/retailer buyers have a maximum of 1,920 words between them for conducting business at the conference table -- approximately half the number of words in this feature. That's not very much when you consider the value of business that can result from one of these meetings.

Because of this it's extremely important to use the time wisely. "Since it's only an eight-minute meeting -- in some cases 16 minutes -- if you're not well organized and both sides don't have their stuff together, it can be very unproductive," says Michael Winterbottom, c.t.o. for Colorado Springs, Colo.-based GMDC. "That's why we developed CCCnet -- to help conference attendees get the most out of those minutes."

CCCnet is the association's Internet-based marketing conference preparation and follow-up toolset that allows retail and wholesaler buyers and suppliers to set up and prepare for their meetings at GMDC's conferences.

CCCnet was developed five years ago at GMDC's annual strategic planning session. "During the first one I attended, the conversation among the board members evolved into how we could use our online tools to augment the productivity at the CCC table," Winterbottom says. "They were looking to develop a tool that would enable members to do three things: research the people they will be meeting with, convey any set of conference objectives they might have in general, and, finally, to address specific items to targeted trading partners."

In the past, preparing for the conference used to be a completely paper-based process. The suppliers attending the conference used to fax enormous lists to every buyer. The retailers would have to fill them out by hand and fax them back to GMDC so its staff could manually enter them into the system. "It was tedious and error-prone, and it had to be proofed," Winterbottom recalls. "The retailers would pick the suppliers they wanted to meet by hand-checking them, and then would express-mail or fax it back to us. We had a whole team of people who sat there and entered them into the system before the scheduling process could even begin."

Patrick Spear is v.p., sales for Spontex, Inc., a Columbia, Tenn.-based manufacturer and marketer of cleaning tools, which has been attending the GMDC GM conference for more than a decade. "Before we started using CCCnet, we would receive our advance appointment schedule from GMDC prior to arriving at the conference," he says. "Once the conference began, we would solicit appointments with the wholesaler/retailer attendees whom we didn't have scheduled. It was a very manual process, involving lots of paperwork, without a lot of opportunity to explain or clarify why we were requesting an appointment."

Spear first began using CCCnet in early 2001 and has used it extensively every year since. "It definitely focuses the meetings," he says. "It gives us advance visibility of the meeting agenda, and lets us target and prioritize the conference attendees that we really need to see."

Mike Juergensmeyer, group v.p., general merchandise and pharmacy for St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets, Inc., began using CCCnet last year to help squeeze more information into his eight-minute meetings. "Before using the system, I kind of just let the show happen," he says. "It was productive, but the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it, and CCCnet helps us put a lot more into the conference preparation process."

All GMDC members receive information and instructions for CCCnet and are given a password to log on to the system. There are also instructions online to assist them during the process.

Phase I:

Solicit Appointments

The first step in the online process for the conference format occurs during a two-week period approximately four months before the conference. During this time the suppliers can log on to CCCnet and click on a button marked "Solicit Appointments." This sends the supplier to a page with a list of all the retailer and wholesaler buyers registered for the conference.

On this page suppliers can hit a "Company Profile" button to pull up detailed information on the retailer and wholesaler companies. "The first thing we do is view the list of attending wholesaler/retailers," Spontex's Spear says. "For those attendees with whom we're not familiar, we use the "Company Profile" feature of CCCnet to get a better understanding of the attendees' business."

In the wholesaler/retailer profiles, each buyer is shown in association with which categories he or she buys, and the buyer list can be filtered by those categories carried by the supplier, which saves time for each side of the table, as it ensures that only the relevant attendees on each side of the table are communicating. This is very important when dealing with large retailers, which may have more than a dozen representatives at the conference, spread across three or four tables.

The supplier can send a blanket message to all buyers, such as information about a new product, or can target specific buyers with a detailed text message. "Different suppliers use it for different purposes," GMDC's Winterbottom says. "Some of them use it as a blanket way to say that they're new to the industry and have some really hot sellers that might work for the buyer. Others may use it for a more pointed purpose. They may have their top 10 accounts, and they may have some really good reasons why they need to meet with them."

After the targeted buyers are selected, the supplier solicits the appointment. "Once we've established who's attending, and whom we particularly want to meet with, we use the "Appointment Solicitation" feature of CCCnet to request an eight- or 16-minute appointment with specific attendees," Spear says. "Usually we'll provide a brief overview of Spontex and a reason why we'd like to meet with the attendee, such as a new product launch, upcoming promotions, or a business review."

Phase II:

Picking Appointments

When the three-week window closes, suppliers can no longer solicit appointments on the site. Then it's the buyers' turn. The next phase is a two-week period during which buyers choose their appointments. When they log on, they click on a button that reads "Pick Your Appointments," which pulls up a list of all the suppliers that solicited an appointment with them. This list can be customized by the buyer. "There are lots of ways they can slice and dice it," GMDC's Winterbottom says. "Some of them just want to see the supplier company names; they want to see the list as concisely as possible. Others may want more information. They can tailor their view. We can provide as much profile information on the suppliers as they want -- including pictures of the suppliers' product, whether they do EDI, anything the supplier provides. Since the buyer must select from more than 400 suppliers, they typically try to use all the information we make available to them online; they simply don't have time to contact all those companies."

Schnuck Markets' Juergensmeyer finds the photos on the vendor profiles particularly helpful. "The online photo functionality is great, particularly for vendors whose products you're not familiar with," he says. "It gives you a preview before the conference, and if I want to pay particular attention to this vendor or a particular item they have at the show, I'll make a little note to myself. It may give them an opportunity they may not have had otherwise."

The entire selection process takes Juergensmeyer about a day and a half. "I'll go through it first and put a spreadsheet together about all the meetings, the general synopsis of what categories are represented," he says. "Then I give it to the category managers -- I have two for general merchandise and two for HBC -- and they'll indicate the people they need to see. We'll look for any interesting vendors that might have something new or different, as well as vendors that we regularly do business with and need to meet for a specific reason."

If the buyer doesn't select a vendor, the system defaults to "no" and will send the vendor the following message: "No thank you. I do not wish to have an appointment." Those suppliers the buyer selects can choose an eight-minute meeting, a 16-minute meeting, or a 32-minute meeting -- an option available to the buyer for three select vendors.

When the buyer finishes his or her selections, he or she hits a "Commit" button, which notifies the GMDC that his or her selections have been made and are ready for scheduling. Once all the buyers have sent in their selections, the selection information is sent to GMDC scheduling software, which produces a customized schedule for every attendee on both sides of the table.

Phase III:

Conference Prep

Once the schedules have been generated and are available online, each attendee is notified. "What follows is the biggest purpose of CCCnet," Winterbottom notes. "This is when you have five weeks to prepare for your sit-down meetings at the conference. During this time you can do all sorts of stuff. Typically what happens is the first few times they log on, they want to see whom they have appointments with, and when and where. Then they start to take advantage of all the communication tools."

The first CCCnet tool with which users normally begin their preparation, according to Winterbottom, is the "Conference Objectives" function, which allows the buyers and suppliers to state their main goals for the conference. "If you have a strategic focus for that conference, you can communicate it to all your trade partners by filling out this form," he says. "So you can list your objectives, and they're automatically dropped into the file of every trade partner you'll be meeting with, in their schedule right under your name, so they'll see it when they're in the system."

In addition to the conference objectives, both buyers and suppliers can list specific agenda items for topics they would like to discuss at the conference. These agenda items and these conference objectives don't have to be textual in nature. They can be a file, such as a PowerPoint presentation, a spreadsheet, or an image -- which can be uploaded like an e-mail attachment.

The purpose of the agenda items is to focus the content of the face-to-face conversation at the conference, and they vary greatly from one trading partner to another. "The agenda items are totally different for each supplier we deal with," says Schnuck Markets' Juergensmeyer. "In the GM show there are less everyday shelf vendors -- suppliers we do regular business with. Many are new, smaller suppliers; a lot of importers; a lot of vendors with unique items. With these vendors I'm usually looking for immediate impact items -- something that's different, that I can bring in quickly, either in an in-and-out test or to see if it's something I want to put in the regular assortment. I'm also looking for promotional and seasonal items for the third and fourth quarter, so this is what I tell them in their agendas."

For his everyday vendors, such as Anderson News and Hallmark Cards, Juergensmeyer's agenda usually includes new product reviews or addresses specific issues or concerns like logistics, funding, or service levels.

For some meetings, though, Juergensmeyer doesn't set any agenda items. "This is often the case for the everyday vendors," he says. "I may have a business review, but I may not have any logistics problems, and they might have great turns and I'm getting great service levels, so I won't have anything on there. But if I have a particular vendor where I'm getting poor service for whatever reason -- such as that the inventory they're managing in my warehouse is too high -- we'll obviously be talking about that, or if their funding isn't what it was the previous year, we obviously need to discuss that."

Agenda items can be initiated from the supplier side, too. "Once we've researched the wholesaler/retailer attendees, solicited the appointments, and received our conference schedule, we can then use CCCnet to add specific agenda items for the meetings, or prepare discussion topics based on direct feedback we receive from the wholesaler/retailers," Spontex's Spear says. "We usually log on to CCCnet every few days during the last few weeks before the conference, to see whether any new items or topics have been added to the agenda by the wholesaler/retailers. It also helps us make sure we don't waste time talking about non-value-added topics. If a wholesaler/retailer doesn't want a review of the business, we skip it. If they only want to talk about new items or supply chain opportunities, we'll make sure we're prepared to discuss those topics with that attendee."

Each agenda item is time-stamped, so CCCnet users know when it was entered and who made the entry. One week before the conference the agenda item capability is turned off to prevent last-minute entries that may be missed. During this time, CCCnet users download their schedules and prepare to go to the conference.

The conference and follow-up

The day the conference starts, a follow-up feature becomes active on CCCnet. The follow-up function works a lot like the agenda items, in which text items can be entered into the system. Users have the option of sending the follow-up to each attendee who took part in the conference, and can send e-mail reminders for specific dates.

One worry that CCCnet users had, especially for post-conference follow-up, was that messages reached attendees who may not log on to the system for a while after the show. "Some CCCnet users were concerned that once the buyer was done with the conference, they may not log on to the site for a while and may miss important follow-ups," GMDC's Winterbottom says. "So we came up with a "Guaranteed Notification" function. We do this both for everything you enter into the system before the conference and for everything you enter into the system afterward."

The way the "Guaranteed Notification" function works is this: All updates to the CCCnet relevant to the recipients are sent directly to their e-mail accounts when they haven't logged on to the site for a specified time period. The messages are alphabetized and sorted by supplier or buyer. "This is nice to have in your back pocket," Winterbottom says. "Members take the time to enter all of this follow-up stuff into the system, and it's nice for them to know it's not going to sit there unread if the recipient doesn't log on. They'll get it regardless."

This year GMDC has two initiatives that will be tied directly into CCCnet. One of these, called the Showcase at GMDC, is a room physically located at the conference and replacing the product gallery that has traditionally been at the show. The Showcase will be in a private room and will feature display cases and wing panels, as well as individual items. Only buyers will have access to the room, so suppliers don't have to worry about any competitive issues.

When buyers enter the room, they'll be handed scanners, and as they walk around the room, they can scan the items that are of interest to them. In each buyer's schedule will be a 24-minute period set aside specifically for the Showcase, so they don't have to work it into their tight itineraries.

The moment they're done scanning, the information is immediately uploaded to the CCCnet database. "Whenever they log on to the system after they've been in that room, all of the things that they scan are immediately integrated into their schedules," Winterbottom says. "This allows them to do all kinds of stuff. They can view My Showcase, which enables them to see information about things they scanned in the room. And they get a list of those with thumbnail pictures, and they can explode the thumbnail image to a big picture. They can pull up a tabbed product profile where they can see the item and shipping information."

Schnuck Markets' Juergensmeyer likes the hands-on idea of the Showcase, as well as the fact that he won't have to carry any items back home with him. It will also help him remember the products after all his meetings. "I have 185 appointments during the show, and to remember that many people -- no matter how well I take notes -- is still very difficult. With the Showcase, I'll be able to see the product from the show, to help jog my memory."

Suppliers that enter into the Showcase will have the ability to log on to CCCnet and see which buyers scanned their displays. "The Showcase is a way for suppliers to get a product in front of every buyer at the show," Winterbottom points out. "For the GM show the average number of supplier meetings is somewhere in the mid-40s, but there are more than 100 buyer tables at the conference. The Showcase, which costs $200 to participate in, enables the supplier to be in front of the other 55 percent that they don't have an appointment with.

"The second new program GMDC initiated to drive more product information to buyers is an online conference catalog. This virtual product catalog is available to all member suppliers. The first two items are free, with additional items costing $50 each to upload. Unlike the Showcase, which is meant for displays, the online catalog is meant to be for individual retail consumer-level items."

As with everything else, both the Showcase items and the online catalog items are integrated into the CCCnet schedules and directly linked to the buyer's appointments. "There will be links right there that enable the buyer to access both the Showcase pages and the items in the online catalog," Winterbottom says.


Although the CCCnet system has come a long way since its early days, it's by no means a static system. Winterbottom continuously solicits comments from the GMDC buyer and supplier community, updating the system and adding functionality where needed. Some of these recent updates include:

-Memorized agenda items: This function allows CCCnet users to store agenda items used very often -- such as "Business Review" -- for use on schedules of other trading partners.

-Flexible download options: CCCnet has many options for downloading schedules: They can be printed one appointment per page, continuously across pages, or with white space for notes. The schedule can also be downloaded in a spreadsheet format. The newest option includes the ability to have schedules downloadable to a PalmPilot, a function more attendees have requested as PDA use becomes more prevalent.

-Monitor: This function enables users to search for specific entries made by trading partners, based on selected criteria, such as date. "One of the things people mentioned is that it can be pretty daunting to log on to CCCnet and remember what they've already seen and what they haven't," Winterbottom says. "With Monitor they can search for what other users have entered for them. And they can be very specific-they may only want to see things that have been entered in the last 16 days, or since the last time they logged on. There are all sorts of different search criteria."

-Private agenda items: These are agenda items that can be shared and seen by only one side of the table. This function lets a group of buyers, for example, who may be geographically dispersed, share comments that are not visible to the trading partner on the other side of the table.

As CCCnet grows in sophistication, will it challenge the need for face-to-face meetings? "I get asked this a lot," Winterbottom says. "'What's the ultimate goal of everything you're doing online?' I had an interesting focus group with some of our members, and we started kicking it around, and one of the guys had a good response that I agree with. He said that as things continue to evolve and the Internet and frictionless economy become an increasing part of our doing business, the need for face-to-face meetings doesn't go down -- it goes up. You use the electronics and Internet part of it to implement whatever you decided, and it makes it more efficient. But you still need the face-to-face to establish the relationship, to cut the deal, for the big "trust me" card. So it's even more important as we get electronic."

Juergensmeyer sees it the same way: No matter how much functionality is added to CCCnet, it still won't replace the conference. "At the GMDC show you have eight minutes; you can make a really educated decision if you want to have them come in for a future dialogue," he says. "In person you also can touch the product, see the product, see the person you're dealing with -- I always like to have the eye-to-eye contact with the person I'm dealing with. When you're well prepared, eight minutes is a lot of time."

The article "Making every minute count," which appeared in the June 1, 2004 issue of Progressive Grocer and highlighted GMDC's CCCnet system, stated that when a buyer views a list of suppliers from which he or she can select appointments, only those suppliers who elect to enter an appointment solicitation into the system will be shown on that supplier candidate list.

The supplier list shown to any given buyer is not restricted to just the suppliers who happened to solicit that buyer. All suppliers are shown to every buyer. Those suppliers who elected to solicit a given buyer will simply have their solicitation for that buyer dropped directly into that buyer's selection sheet, right under the supplier's company name.
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