Critical thinking in the aftermarket parts workplace

Aug. 24, 2017
Category managers often struggle to decipher shopper behavior that appears unexplainable. To alleviate these issues of disparate data clashing with gut instincts, category managers can follow four steps for critical thinking.

Consider this imagined scenario. Sandwell Auto Parts hires a category manager named Bonnie to explain why they suffered flat sales despite their heavy promotion of Craz-E Car cleaner throughout the spring. Bonnie decides the best approach to this “mystery” is to try to understand the sales performance from the customers’ perspective.

Category managers often struggle to decipher shopper behavior that appears unexplainable. To alleviate these issues of disparate data clashing with gut instincts, category managers can follow four steps for critical thinking – an approach recommended by Sue Nicholls, president of The Category Management Knowledge Group – to trump false assumptions, capture relevant information and make sound decisions.

1. Ask questions and gather data. Curious Bonnie is not a novice who would be tempted to issue unfounded statements. Instead, she considers which business opportunity is driving the sales decline with Craz-E Cleaner. Did the downturn result from fewer people in the store or something else? She looks for data to give her clues. In particular, she gathers three reports – year-to-date sales, foot traffic count, and sales closure – to prove an interconnected path to purchase.

2. Organize the findings. At this point, Bonnie’s goal is to find supporting evidence by connecting the data. Conversely, she will eliminate irrelevant evidence-based sources or unfounded opinions. She is open-minded to pair up unrelated reports about the cleaner’s performance from external sources like the supplier or third parties. She senses that all those findings may disprove the natural assumption that the stores were empty. Perhaps something else was happening in the store.

3. Evaluate the information. Bonnie is no slave to bias or gut instinct. So in the pursuit of reality, she distinguishes some preliminary customer insights. Year-to-date sales information confirms that activity declined in April while the promotion ran. The next report indicates that foot traffic inside the stores remained steady, which suggests that there was plenty of customer purchase potential to meet the sales target. Finally, the closure report shows that the customers were in fact exposed to the cleaner display. However, the evidence remains inconclusive. Why? The facts reveal a valid (but not an observable) finding that yes, the cleaner was highly exposed, but that exposure did not convince the customer to purchase it.

4. Draw conclusions. Remember that management wants to know what’s going on in the customer’s mind. From here, Bonnie moves on from what happened in the store to why the customers did not bite. Albeit time-consuming, Bonnie surveys the store employees and their customers. She learns that there was no point-of-purchase message on the display to engage the shopper. Most of the customers said they were confused about how Craz-E Car cleaner differed from its rival brands. In fact, the shoppers stated that they would have bought it had suggestions or best uses been visually showcased. This feedback moves Bonnie well beyond the original assumption that too few shoppers visited the stores. Sandwell Auto Parts actually built their reputation by interacting with their customers, so shoppers have come to expect active participation inside the aisle. Bonnie advises the management that the marketing and advertising team should ensure that all brand displays need to improve the signage and include a message to appeal to customers who are yearning interaction.

This best practices case study reflects Nicholls’s passion for optimizing overall shopper satisfaction and category performance. In particular, she believes that critical thinking will become the most sought after skill by employers as data management dominates our work.

The task of developing and implementing critical thinking in the workplace can be messy, but the process of actively conceptualizing, analyzing and synthesizing information toward a sturdy conclusion is an evolutionary skill. Over time, you will eliminate the temptation to rely on opinions that lack evidence or proof.

By producing sound and objective arguments, you can become a more persuasive, stronger communicator and an adept decision maker. Best yet, you may establish meaningful conversations amongst fellow stakeholders to improve product assortment tactics regarding pricing, promotion and shelving. For more details, visit the Category Management Knowledge Group site. 

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About the Author

Alan Segal

Alan R. Segal specializes in project management for suppliers, consultants and retailers. He practiced category management for Sanel Auto Parts Co. and Advance Auto Parts before launching his own firm, Alan R. Segal-Best Business Practitioner. He has worked in the auto care industry since 1991. Connect with Alan on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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