By Mike Schwartz, Senior Vice President, Member Value

Sales agency leaders come together at IFMA Presidents Conference 2023.
  • Like the rest of the food-away-from-home industry, sales agencies have undergone significant transformation over the last several decades
  • The mergers of Acosta and The CORE Group, along with the recent KeyImpact and Waypoint deal, have shaken up the sales agency landscape.
  • IFMA will be creating new opportunities for sales agencies to bring their voice to the community and help manufacturers reach the customer base.

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The purchase process for operators has shifted over time. Gone are the days of looking through a printed product catalog from a distributor sales rep. Manufacturers are investing more in digital advertising, distributors depend heavily on online ordering capabilities, and third-party consolidators are working with both to bring product information and recommended products to the forefront.


And, as manufacturers consider their go-to-market strategies to effectively reach the operator, there is an additional critical player and strategic partner to consider: sales agencies.


These agencies – formerly known as brokers – act as an extension of a manufacturer’s sales force. They’re the “feet on the street” with strong networks and knowledge of the customer. According to a recent Technomic report, 75-80% of the manufacturer community employs a sales agency to some degree.


Like the industry it serves, thesales agency community hasundergone transformation in recent years. Just two decades ago, the community was ruled by a sea of strong independent agencies – including one-person organizations – that focused on specific segments, product categories, metro and/or geographic regions. Around 15 years ago, many of these independent agencies began to consolidate, creating several national players who went to market with a broad range of services. Additional retail-focused agencies have attempted to enter foodservice over this time, though success was hard to come by without deep-rooted relationships with potential customers.


The challenges faced by some retail-focused agencies led to further transformation in the community. In 2021, Acosta and The CORE Group combined their foodservice divisions to form CORE Foodservice, a conglomerate and super-agency. And just this past February, the two largest remaining agencies – KeyImpact and Waypoint – joined forces to create Acxion Foodservice.


These and other consolidations brought complexity to a marketplace looking for simplification. Not long ago, sales agencies focused on specific metros, markets or product lines. Today, venture capital money has changed the sales agency business, just as it transformed the consolidation of chain restaurants and manufacturers. The resulting new dynamics continue to disrupt the food-away-from-home marketplace and have implications for the future.


These market forces have also put many manufacturers in a bind, creating conflicts of interest in product lines, and in some instances, customer representation. For other manufacturers, this consolidation has created new opportunities, with agency partners offering greater support, including local market research and data along with additional marketing, financial, and culinary services. And, for regional agencies, their strength continues to be nimbleness and a strong understanding of the specific region(s) they cover.


More than ever, manufacturers are evaluating their go-to-market strategies and aligning with strategic partners to help them reach operators across the country even when a fully direct sales force may not be feasible. Employing digital marketing strategies to meet the operator where they are is crucial in today’s environment. But manufacturers need both a push and pull approach. They’re looking for trusted, knowledgeable partners who understand market and customer dynamics. And there are many sales agencies – large, midsized, and small – to assist in these endeavors.


Soon, IFMA will announce a new opportunity for all sales agencies to become part of its membership, allowing for access and collaboration to meet manufacturer and operator needs. This effort aims to bring our new vision and mission to life – to be a convener, bringing critical partners to the table to build innovative solutions and address key industry challenges. The critical voice of the sales agency has been missing from the conversation.


While the entire industry continues to transform in front of our eyes, so does IFMA. We’re excited to be recognizing the importance of sales agencies as they continue to evolve, providing manufacturers with a wider view of potential partners.