Survival Guide For Small Retailers: Size And Success

When CropLife® magazine sent me an email asking about writing an article about the survival of small and medium retailers, I thought, “What a coincidence this one is.”

Following several years working in the ag retail environment, I am settling into my new role as a retail consultant, and business is booming. And it’s largely because retailers are asking the very same question: how can I ensure the long term sustainability of my business? Is the size of my business a help or a hindrance to reaching my goal?

The truth is, all sizes of ag retailers have their own challenges, and not every business in the same size category has the same challenges and opportunities. But it’s interesting and instructive to find some commonalities among small to medium retailers and large regional and national retailers to identify where these businesses are and where they need to go to be successful and sustainable.

Small, Medium Size Retailers

Closely held medium and small ag retailers excel in many areas. In general, they are able to react to market challenges quickly, and have fewer layers of management to work through. They are generally lean and efficient, and do a great job at operations.

On the other hand, economics of size are a constant challenge. Many times they are able to remain competitive on plant nutrients, if their purchases are timely. But when crop protection and seed technology enter the picture, things become more challenging. With the current trend in programs from crop protection, seed and distribution, it has become increasingly difficult to maximize competitiveness across the entire product line.

Some businesses tend to migrate to business software that provide a very general picture of the operation, and are sometimes limited on part of their business model, such as agronomy. These same limitations challenge the effectiveness of tracking agronomy or sales associate performance. Some software is so limited that it compromises their ability to calculate bottom-line performance.

Decisions on investments in manpower, equipment and facilities must be made judiciously to balance the “right stuff” and a bottom line. Outsourcing is a must for these retailers. Most simply do not have the economics of size to justify their own qualified precision ag staff, environmental and safety compliance staff or IT personnel.

For the larger mid-sized ag retailer, many of the same challenges exist but on a larger scale. There’s a greater need for improved performance as they work to keep up with the large ag retailers.

They have become large enough to justify more investments in precision agriculture, environmental and safety, and IT personnel. That said, many tend to settle for part-time associates who fill double or even triple roles in their business, significantly diminishing the upside of a full-out investment in a labor intensive program such as seed sales.

The multi-tasking manager may have worked in the past, but fast and rapidly changing precision and seed technology will challenge past models. Unless they change, they will find themselves being further outpaced by retailers who already have made this investment.

Good To Be Big?

Large national and regional ag retailers appear to have the upper hand for success today, and in the future, but don’t think the same factors that challenge you do not impact them as well.

Larger retailers do have their own safety and compliance departments that keep them abreast and in line with current and upcoming regulations. While everyone is struggling on how to handle the new mini-bulk rules, the large ag retailer’s compliance department should already have a plan in place.

Economics of size should allow these retailers to bring on a fully staffed precision agriculture department. Today, for a large ag retailer many believe that one technical specialist should be enough. Perhaps it is meeting the business’ needs today, but where this business is heading in the next three to five years may change that model.

Some very efficient large ag retailers have their own IT department. Here you will see two or more highly qualified individuals that just do IT. I am not talking about someone who can load new programs and set up new computers. These folks write their own computer code, make their own patches between different software manufactures, and implement conductivity solutions. They will help these large retailers lead the way as 4G cellular service comes to life, and with it the technology enhancements that will drive ag retail, and your customers.

Large retailers have seed and fertilizer specialists who constantly watch and track these markets.

Large ag retailers may also have an Achilles heel. The economics of size often makes them slower to react and slower to change with additional layers of administrative costs.

Excessive time analyzing a project or direction often slows them down on more than just that project. Layers of administrative personnel sometimes provide input into area that they have no technical expertise in, which can also slow progress. Sometimes the leaders themselves get so far removed from the trenches that they lose connection with what is really going on.

And at times large retailers start to act like a business that has a net profit of 20%, instead of a 2% to 7%.

There are a number of important issues that challenge all of ag retail. For example, I am concerned with marketing programs that product vendors and distributors are taking to ag retailers. Crop protection and seed vendors are two good examples of a segment of our industry whose programs themselves promote mergers and acquisitions in our industry.

Leveling The Field

Plant food manufacturers aren’t keeping their field level, either. An ag retailer may wish to buy product at the lowest price of the year, and even have the funds available, but are unable to do so. Too often, the lowest price product of the year ends up in the distributor’s hands for internal retail sales, or is marketed to a select few strategic wholesalers, brokers or retailers.

As you can see, opportunities and challenges exist for all sizes of ag retail operations. Some will be “mean and lean”, some will “lead with technology”, while “operational excellence” or a combination of these will build a successful business unit.

In my view, technology will be key. While I have been working with precision agriculture since the early ’90s, I believe we are standing on the edge of where technology is just starting to lead us. 4-G networks, combined with GPS and software technology, will revolutionize the way we do business. It will improve our efficiencies, and change how we work as a team with our growers. Planning a course of action for success in technology today will help the success of all sized business units.

Leave a Reply

Management Stories

CPS Morenci receiving its 4R certification
StewardshipCPS Morenci Becomes First Michigan Facility Certified In 4R Nutrient Stewardship
August 31, 2015
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has announced that Crop Production Services, Inc.’s facility located in Morenci, MI, has been Read More
ManagementConsolidation hits and a miss; And a look at China’s challenges
August 28, 2015
As Monsanto suspends its pursuit of Syngenta, consolidation news at the retail and distribution level heats up. CropLife magazine’s Executive Read More
ManagementCrop Conditions In Minnesota and Traveling Time
August 21, 2015
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiilgoj discuss the crop outlook from a field trip to Minnesota and upcoming travel plans. Read More
ManagementCF Industries/CHS Deal & More Water Issues
August 14, 2015
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the recent fertilizer arrangement between CF Industries and CHS and look at the Read More
Top 100 Articles
Crop InputsLand ‘O Lakes, United Suppliers Finalize Merger
August 24, 2015
According to a press release on August 24, owners of United Suppliers, Inc. and members of Land O’Lakes, Inc. “have Read More
West Central Cooperative, Jefferson, IA
CropLife 100Iowa Cooperatives To Explore Unification
August 19, 2015
The boards of directors at two of Iowa’s leading farmer-owned cooperatives yesterday signed a letter of intent to study the Read More
CropLife 100Southern States Coop Hosting Drone Flight This Friday
August 3, 2015
Southern States Cooperative — No. 9 on the CropLife 100 — is hosting an FAA-approved drone demonstration at Grandview Farms Read More
CropLife 100Aligned Ag Distributors Adds Four New Owners
July 30, 2015
Aligned Ag Distributors LLC has announced the addition of four new customer/owners to Franklin Holding Co. LLC. They are: The Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Purchases California-Based Specialty Crops Retailer
July 20, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings has successfully acquired California-based NH3 Service Co.  Operating as part of Pinnacle’s Performance Agriculture brand, the new locations Read More
Asmus Farm Supply liquid fertilizer facility features 20,000 square feet
CropLife 100Slideshow: Asmus Farm Supply Shows Off Its New Liquid Fertilizer Facility
July 15, 2015
Asmus Farm Supply, Rake, IA, recently added a new liquid fertilizer facility to its company operations. The new liquid fertilizer Read More
Latest News
Crop InputsMonsanto, FMC Expand Roundup Ready PLUS Platform
August 31, 2015
FMC Corp. and Monsanto Co. announced today an expanded agreement to continue their participation in the Roundup Ready PLUS Crop Read More
Deere Nutrient Applicator
Eric SfiligojThe Good & Bad News From MAGIE
August 31, 2015
As I write this column, I’ve just returned from the annual Midwest AG Industries (MAGIE) trade show in Bloomington, IL. Read More
CPS Morenci receiving its 4R certification
StewardshipCPS Morenci Becomes First Michigan Facility Certified I…
August 31, 2015
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has announced that Crop Production Services, Inc.’s facility located in Morenci, MI, has been Read More
EquipmentDeere Announces Soucy Track Distribution Alliance
August 28, 2015
John Deere announces an alliance with Soucy Track to sell and distribute products through the John Deere dealer channel. “This Read More
FertilizerFall-Applied Phosphorus: A Rooted Investment
August 28, 2015
As commodity prices decrease and input prices continue to rise, farmers are seeking more efficient strategies for meeting a high Read More
Monsanto Sign
Crop InputsWhat’s Next For Monsanto, Syngenta?
August 28, 2015
After dropping its $47 billion bid to take over Swiss agribusiness firm Syngenta, Monsanto may be turning its focus to Read More
Golden Harvest Corn stalks
Crop InputsMonsanto: Syngenta Not The Only Horse In Crop Protectio…
August 28, 2015
Monsanto Co, having ditched an audacious $46 billion (£30 billion) offer for Syngenta AG, may downshift to a humbler strategy Read More
ManagementConsolidation hits and a miss; And a look at China’s ch…
August 28, 2015
As Monsanto suspends its pursuit of Syngenta, consolidation news at the retail and distribution level heats up. CropLife magazine’s Executive Read More
Corn Field
MicronutrientsHuma Gro Introduces New Boron Liquid Nutrient Formulati…
August 28, 2015
BORO-MAX, a new boron (B) 10% liquid nutrient formulation, has been added to the Huma Gro product line. This new Read More
Crop InputsNFU: Monsanto Decision To Withdraw Syngenta Bid ‘…
August 26, 2015
National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson said the organization was very pleased by the news that Monsanto has withdrawn Read More
Crop InputsMonsanto Withdraws Bid For Syngenta
August 26, 2015
Monsanto Co. abandoned its latest effort to acquire Syngenta AG, the world’s top maker of pesticides, after a sweetened bid Read More
Syngenta Sign
Crop InputsSyngenta Comments On Monsanto Announcement
August 26, 2015
The Board of Syngenta confirms that it received a verbal proposal from Monsanto to acquire the company at a price Read More
Case IH Patriot 2250 Sprayer
EquipmentHigh-powered Case IH Patriot 2250 Sprayer Pushes Throug…
August 26, 2015
Engineered with more muscle, the new 660-gallon-capacity Patriot 2250 sprayer features best-in-class horsepower, along with the fuel efficiency that comes Read More
Crop InputsLand ‘O Lakes, United Suppliers Finalize Merger
August 24, 2015
According to a press release on August 24, owners of United Suppliers, Inc. and members of Land O’Lakes, Inc. “have Read More
TMX-2050 In-Cab Display Launch Run Screen
Eric SfiligojPrecision Ag Could Shine In Increased Spotlight On Agri…
August 24, 2015
By any measure, 2015 is turning into one of the most challenging years agriculture has ever experienced. All throughout good Read More
ManagementCrop Conditions In Minnesota and Traveling Time
August 21, 2015
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiilgoj discuss the crop outlook from a field trip to Minnesota and upcoming travel plans. Read More
HerbicidesREUTERS: Anti-GMO ‘Scientist’ Calls For New…
August 20, 2015
EDITORS NOTE: We feel that it is important to note that there are those that believe one of the lead Read More
Rendering of Syngenta Seedcare Institute expansion
Seed/BiotechSyngenta Announces Seedcare Application And Resource Ce…
August 19, 2015
Syngenta recently announced the Seedcare Application and Resource Center, a collaborative new website designed exclusively for Syngenta Seedcare customers to Read More