Veteran retailers, possibly with a glint in their eye, will recall a time when sales reps would call on their stores regularly. These were not agency reps but employees of the supplier and they would drive around the city or regional centre in cars chock-full of the latest small appliances and electronics, while carrying a portfolio of the best new major appliances.

These older retailers speak of a personal affection for the reps; rapports were built and strong relationships forged.

Kelvin Smith, who manages and owns Kelvin Johns Bi-Rite in Victoria, has noticed the decline in rep visits, saying some suppliers don’t call on his store at all, preferring to send new product information via email instead.

“Reps of some of the larger suppliers like Sony used to call on our stores monthly, now we are lucky if we speak to a representative once in four months,” Smith said.

“We find out most of our supplier information online, given that we are no longer communicated to direct from the suppliers.” (Sony declined an opportunity to respond.)

Not all suppliers are forsaking face-to-face contact. Smith said a rep from Miele comes every four weeks to take staff through the product features, and reps from Asko and Electrolux visit regularly as well. Smith said he thinks the sales reps are worried about their own jobs too.

Forty years ago, when he started work in an electrical retailer, Smith’s boss gave him a can of Mr Sheen and told him to dust everything in the shop. This continued day after day until he learnt how every product worked.

That’s the job of the reps, Smith says, to provide product knowledge to staff.

Even the bigger retailers that carry more sway in the industry echo this sentiment. In his contribution to AR’s Mid-Year Report Card, E&S Trading joint managing direct Rob Sinclair said lack of retail staff knowledge was crippling the industry.

In commercial sales, there is similar angst. Mario Pace is the general manager of NCE Commercial, a leading wholesale supplier of major brand electrical appliances across Australia, selling to builders, architects, designers, developers and audio visual integrators for more than 20 years.

“We’ve noticed a considerable shift in the service levels from our suppliers. Their visits into our showrooms are more infrequent and when they visit they are no longer equipped with the same collateral of information to showcase new products and information,” Pace said.

Both Smith and Johns have recently joined a new service called RangeMe, a website that helps suppliers range their products with buyers.

“We were excited to sign up as buyers in RangeMe to fill his gap and view new products coming into the marketplace,” Pace said. “It is a convenient touchpoint to source new suppliers and stay up-to-date with product trends and information, which we are currently missing out on direct from suppliers.”

RangeMe CEO Nicky Jackson said the site streamlines the ranging process for products. Suppliers upload their products and information, and, according to preferences, are matched up with buyers so they can negotiate.

“RangeMe is a perfect solution for suppliers to ensure buyers don’t miss out on seeing the necessary information about their products.” Jackson said. “RangeMe does the job of an account manager in showcasing all the key features of a product line so that buyers are always kept informed.”

RangeMe launched a Consumer Electronics Channel in May, three months ahead of schedule.

“For the electronics market this is a huge win to create efficiencies for buyers being able to view all supplier product submissions in one place with all the information needed to make a ranging decision. For suppliers it enables them to showcase their products to leading electronic retailers, creating huge efficiencies in the market place.”

Jackson said an influx of suppliers have loaded their products into the channel, which is divided into segments ranging from computers and accessories to cookers and food preparation. She claims the site is already being utilised by buyers from Dick Smith, Leading Appliances and Bi-Rite Electrical.

A version of this story was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Appliance Retailer. Read the response from an account manager here