Putting the Brakes on Purchasing Practices Survey Fatigue: An article from Dr. Marsha Dickson

Buyer surveys on purchasing practices do not produce credible data, and waste money and resources that brands and retailers could be spending elsewhere in the business. So let’s put the brakes on, before this train gets out of control. Read the latest article from our President and Co-Founder, Dr. Marsha Dickson.

Steve Lamar’s blog on audit fatigue, published by Better BuyingTM in August 2023, pointed to many ongoing problems with brands and retailers, and different initiatives, asking suppliers to spend time and money on multiple audits, when often one with results shared across relevant entities would make so much more sense. 

Now, as the urgency for brands and retailers to be “doing something” about their  purchasing practices gathers steam, we see a parallel problem developing. One that needs to be put a stop to now before we roll back down the track to the same wasteful outcome for suppliers and low-value “busy work” for brands and retailers.

The problem is supplier survey fatigue and its engine is being fueled by a number of actors in the industry: brands and retailers who believe their purchasing practices are so unique they can’t possibly benefit from standardized surveys used by others and so they must commission their own; MSIs who are still encouraging buyers to run their own surveys (often to avoid paying modest sums for that work); and academics and others doing field research in single countries or small regions to show how big a problem purchasing practices are. 

It’s time to pause and reflect before the train gets out of control and we repeat the same old mistakes made in factory auditing. Let’s take a moment to unload the luggage, bag by bag, with an eye toward lightening the load and keeping the train on the tracks.

Do brands and retailers need customized surveys to understand the problems their purchasing practices are creating? No, at least not until they are well into the work. In fact, customized surveys carried out at the onset of work on purchasing practices are likely to ignore critical areas known to impact suppliers and workers. 

A survey, such as the Better Buying Purchasing Practices IndexTM, broadly covers the full range of practices, which, on the basis of extensive research, are known to impact suppliers and their workers. The survey doesn’t just cover a hodge-podge of practices that the brand or retailer has a hunch is a problem with some of their suppliers, or a narrow set of practices that they are willing to consider doing anything about. Plus, with a customized survey, the first question from merchants and others carrying out the business will be, “how does this compare to others? And are we worse than the industry as a whole?” 

A customized survey implemented by the brand or retailer lacks the motivating benchmark data to fuel internal interest to change.

Can money be saved by brands and retailers using their own internal staff to do the research? If you only think of money as external expenditure out of a limited budget, you might save a few thousand dollars that can be spent elsewhere. But trying to do this internally misses the fact that internal staff have limited time and probably limited experience in developing and running surveys. Any time spent trying to do the work that an organization like Better BuyingTM does at scale and with efficient and specialized methods is a serious opportunity cost that prevents other work from being done and will also lead to less credible findings. And that’s if the findings are even intelligible. Off-the-shelf, do-it-yourself survey products have made everyone, in every industry, believe they can do research at a touch of a button, and with little cost. But everyone cannot do quality, credible research that provides valuable insights and evidence of progress without more advanced skills. 

As far as the academic research goes, it is more likely to be high quality, but the tendency for academic researchers to do sloppy reviews of literature that ignore relevant findings that may not have been peer reviewed leads to reports with few if any new insights. Furthermore, what may be new and novel is often accompanied by arguments about “what the brand must do now,” but with proposed actions and remedies limited to “stop doing what you are doing!”rather than “here are the actionable steps that your suppliers know would help solve the problem.” 

What might brands and retailers do to prevent suppliers from experiencing purchasing practices survey fatigue, which they are already experiencing, especially in high-profile countries like Bangladesh?

First, adopt a standardized survey run by an experienced research organization on a cyclical basis that suppliers are used to completing on a regular cadence for other brands and retailers. Finding experienced researchers with a history of published, high-quality studies, but who have made a shift from the purely academic to more action-oriented research, will give you what you need. The survey you choose is all the better if it was co-created by suppliers because it will give you a comprehensive look at the business practices that impact them. You’re likely to find you’re doing some things well as well as some problem areas you probably won’t know how to address.  But the results of good research will provide you with comparative data that will motivate action, generate insights from suppliers, and provide the ability to measure the improvements you will be making over time.  

And don’t forget the other ways you can benefit from obtaining high-quality, comparable data on your efforts to improve purchasing practices. Brands and retailers are increasingly expressing concerns about all the asks from investors and rankings organizations who want to evaluate their purchasing practices. Many of these asks provide no real value to the brands and retailers that are already working to improve, are probably not well used because they allow too little comparability. Often they focus too much on narrow problems that will have limited impact on improving suppliers’ businesses or abilities to achieve important social and environmental sustainability goals. 

We won’t get out of the station until everyone in industry starts seeing this as as much of a problem as factory audit fatigue, and does their part to end it. Our year-over-year subscribers understand that – and are reaping the business benefits too. Adopting a standardized supplier survey of buyer purchasing practices results in win-win value for you, your suppliers, and many of your most important stakeholders. Let’s put the brakes on supplier survey fatigue before the train comes off the tracks.