I Have A Dream

Category management is not a new idea, but is it something the industry should return to for shopper marketing?

By Dr. Stephen Needel

So began a pretty famous speech, and so begins any number of stories about Category Management 2.0, in which there is once again a call for retailers and manufacturers to work together to deliver what shoppers want.  For those of you unfamiliar with CatMan (as those in the know call it, because who can resist a catchy abbreviation), it was the 1990s brainchild of Brian Harris. He created a process by which retailers would have category captains – a major player in the category – who would help guide the retailer to better assortments, shelf layouts, and pricing. The retailers got more profitable categories and, in return, the captains got somewhat preferential treatment when it came time to allocating space or promotion slots or delisting.

As I wrote for ESOMAR back in 2007, this all went horribly wrong. The process to do CatMan “correctly” filled large 3-ring binders with pages of forms that nobody ever looked at. Manufacturers created armies of category analysts at major retailers to assist them with the intricacies of the process, which often ended up being free labor for the retailer (planogramers of the world, unite!). The town of Rogers, Arkansas, it is said, was created for this very purpose. I talked with a number of manufacturers for the ESOMAR paper and asked them the very pregnant question, “Are you making any money off this process?” Mostly people would look with eyes downcast and not say much; they either didn’t know or, more often, didn’t want to know.

The concept was broken for a two very simple and obvious reasons:

  • What is good for the retailer is not always good for the manufacturer, and vice-versa.
  • Understanding shoppers, which is supposed to be underpinning the whole CatMan process, is not an easy thing and few do it well.

ASL has been doing CatMan research for 25 years now. As we’ve repeatedly shown, the ability to produce a shelf assortment and/or a shelf layout that helps both the category and the manufacturer’s brand has been limited. Only 15% of the time have we seen a win-win outcome, in a process where all the outcomes should be win-win. Trust me when I tell you that most of the scenarios we’ve tested have never seen the light of day at a retailer presentation.


BRAND POSITIVE 15% 18% 7% 40%
BRAND NEUTRAL 1% 38% 6% 44%
BRAND NEGATIVE 1% 7% 7% 15%
  18% 63% 19% 100%


There are a number of reasons why these attempts to improve the assortment or the shelf layout failed; but mostly, they fell into two camps:

  • We think we understand the shopper but our understanding is incomplete or incorrect. So when we make a change, it’s not aligned with what the shopper wants or needs.
  • We understand what the shopper wants or needs, but we either can’t translate that to the shelf or we translate it incorrectly.

The new calls for category management simply echo the past rationales for the process. CatMan has always been designed to be shopper-centric, it has always been designed for all parties to share relevant information, and it has always been Pollyanna-ish in believing altruism will prevail over self-interest.

At its heart, category management and its poor step-child, shopper marketing, has always been about fact-based selling, which existed well before these came to life. We have yet to meet a retailer who wasn’t interested in a better way to merchandise a category. Being a neutral third party, we always get a hearing for our recommendations. Do good shopper research. Design better in-store programs based on that research. Test the programs before going to the retailer. Stop dreaming about unicorns and true category management.

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3 Responses to “I Have A Dream”

  1. Ray Poynter says:

    November 3rd, 2017 at 6:46 am

    Hi Steve, do you think the aim in these customer-centric times should be win-win-win, where the third win is the customer feeling they are benefitting? A retailer typically needs to think life-time value from a customer, so they should not be interested in quick wins that sell customers things the customer is going to regret buying.

    If we think about win-win-win, then we need to define what a customer win is. In many cases this can be as straightforward as making the purchase process easier and helping the buyer feel confident they boght the right thing. For me, the perfect example of a problem is the toothpaste fixture – it is too complex, it leads to doubt in the mind of the buyer, and the result is that most buyers spend almost no time at the fixture, applying a System 1 heuristic (often buy the same as last time).

  2. Dave McCaughan says:

    November 6th, 2017 at 1:27 am

    Nice question Ray … i seem to have spent a disprortionate amount of my career working on how rationalise what it seems is really a highly involving, emotional and yes heuristic category in toothpaste. always welcome more thought around it … Steve ??

  3. Steve Needel says:

    November 8th, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Hi Ray and Dave – sorry to take so long – I’ve been on the injured-reserved list. To Ray first, yes, I’d like a triple win, but at the same time I think consumers are more easily pleased than we give them credit for. I think primarily they want to find what they want quickly and pay what they perceive to be a good price. There are some shoppers who also want, or are interested in trying, new and different, so that’s what they look for. Dave – love your characterization of the category. Toothpaste may be one where we’ve artificially made it more complicated than it needs to be and where I think we’ve traditionally merchandised it poorly. In a test we did in China, we found signage for a brand failed, largely because how they thought they were marketing the toothpaste was not how shoppers thought of it. This may be a category where sometimes it’s the shelf that’s the problem, and sometimes it’s the marketing.

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