Written by Jane Stacey,
January 05th, 2021 | Category Management

There are 3 types of Category Manager. Only one is of any real use.

I’m not a classically trained Category Manager, I’m not sure many of us are. If you were lucky enough to be given formal training, or taught by someone who was, you’ll be familiar with the framework we all work to, more or less.  If not then you may be a bit more “freestyle” and I applaud that.

Having met and worked with all kinds of Category Managers I’ve been fortunate enough to observe and assess the true character of Category Management in day to day action, this has allowed me to answer a question I’ve long had:

What kind of Category Manager is most valued by their business and the retailers they work with?


Category Management is done in the trenches

Category management is not a theoretical science. It’s not philosophical but something that you do and most importantly needs to be doable. Whatever you recommend must end up on a shelf or in front of a shopper. Punting a Category Vision that looks amazing with a VR fly through and rousing soundtrack might get you a high five, but the glow won’t last if your activation platforms are rainbows and unicorns.

In Category Management you need to be a big picture thinker, you need to know your shoppers’ deepest desires and you need to know what they REALLY do in store. All of the focus groups in the world won’t tell you what time-poor mum’s will do when they need to find the right cough medicine or the only pasta sauce their child will eat. Nothing substitutes knowing what your shopper wants and what they actually do to get it. This can often be the missing piece of the puzzle between Epos and Panel data.

The pandemic has made it difficult in 2020 to go into store, but before you had that excuse, ask yourself honestly when did you last go into store and watch people shopping your category?


Planning for retail reality

One way to make sure that your big ideas are something that can actually happen is to plot your ideas on a Skill/Will matrix. Make a simple chart with an x and y axis. Your x axis is your retailer’s capability to execute your idea, from ‘they could do this tomorrow’ to ‘this would take a big change in capability’. Your y axis is where you plot how much your Retailer will want to do this, from ‘I need this NOW’ to ‘nice to do sometime’. Where ‘I need this NOW’ meets ‘I could do this tomorrow’, you’ve got your winner.

I was recently introduced to MoSCoW, a project management prioritising tool that is being used in the high speed gaming industry amongst others. It separates your ideas into what you Must do, Should do, Could do and Won’t do. More robust and actionable than a simple High/Medium/Low priority grading. Knowing your nice-to-haves and your won’t-dos can bring some clarity to a project or idea that is spiralling out of control, or is the darling of the loudest voice in the room.


Seeking first to understand

One of Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people, and a good one to remember (read it if you haven’t). There are many useful places to understand your Retailer better, such as the IGD’s website, annual statements or investor’s reports, trade or national press.

But the best thing to do is to listen.

Talk with your buyer and most importantly, ask questions. One of the fundamental behaviours of a good Category Manager is Curiosity. Be interested in your Buyer and their business. This is the only way you will have any hope of creating a strategy that aligns with, and works for, a Retailer. Which means it has a much better chance of being delivered.

When we think about how we get the best from our Customers we look to how we can develop our skills such as Negotiation and other techniques we tend to borrow from Sales. But when you look closely at these skills they’re all based on listening.



One surprising skill you may not have thought about for you and your team is Improvisation.

Yes. Really.


Improvisation is often associated with Comedy, but what it’s really about is listening to every word as a gift and recognising the value in each word spoken. It teaches you to understand and build on what you’ve been given and to look for all of the signs and signals that others may have missed. When you listen to someone you admire for their quick wit it is most likely they are not funnier or faster than you, they just picked up on something others missed. This comes from actively listening.

Improvisation teaches you to stop taking notes. Try this and see how much more you concentrate on your conversation.


It’s not enough to be right, it has to be actionable

As Category Managers we absolutely can not have a strategic long term plan if we do not have an opinion on what is going to happen in our Category.

How you get there is in the steps, the hard yards, the one foot in front of the other that will move you towards the Vision of the future. The listings and distribution changes that move you towards your store of the future and ‘the triple win’.

If you haven’t heard the line ‘shelves aren’t elastic’ then you’re not yet a Category Manager.

This is your initiation into the world of Retail. This means you’re thinking big, but big ideas have to be doable. You have to be able to make a change and the way you do that is by getting something in a store.

So from my years of observation, I believe there are 3 types of Category Managers:


The Reactive Chart Maker, a well-intentioned people pleaser who creates the ammo requested of them by their business and gives the sales team the silver bullet they need.
The Theoretical Visionary, a creator of visions and fixture perfection no Shopper could fail to resist but no Retailer could put in store.
Then there’s the Category Manager that sits somewhere between the two. This is the truly useful one. The Strategic Realist who can create and translate the Commanders Intent of a Category Vision, and make it real; with executable excellence that wins the battle for shoppers’ hearts and achieves Category value growth.

That’s the Category Manager we all need to be.


Download free shopper insights that help you in your Category Manager role. We offer you the facts that retailers want to know about when you talk to them. Go to our Resources page and check out your country.