Category Management and Shopper Insights are Similar, But Not the Same

Category Management and Shopper Insights are Similar, But Not the Same:

Chances are, if you don’t work in the world of retail, you are not familiar with Category Management as a career field.  If you do work in retail, you still may have difficulty telling the difference between Category Management and Shopper Insights.  Both deal extensively with shelf strategy, retail data, and objective counsel to the retailer.  However, despite a recent trend in combining these two disciplines, category managers and shopper insights managers play very different roles.

What is Category Management?

Category Management (sometimes called Category Advisorship or Category Captaincy) is a customer-facing role.  They are a trusted advisor to the retailer.  Category managers are expected to be perfectly objective and focused on enabling total category/department growth.  This might sound odd because category managers typically work for one of the retailer’s vendors and not the retailer itself.  Nonetheless, it is an expectation in Category Management to always keep the retailer’s best interest in-mind.  Therefore, Category Management is a position of tremendous trust.  A category manager who breaks trust with a retailer by inappropriately sharing information internally, or disproportionately pushing their “own” brands can lose their job – or advisorship for their company at the very least.

Category Management and the Responsibility of Drawing Plan-o-Grams:

The most distinguishing feature of a Category Management assignment is being responsible for drawing the retailer’s future plan-o-grams.  This is very strategic and time-consuming work.  Every item, on every shelf, in every store needs a place.  It is the category manager’s job to decide on those places.  However, depending on the size of the item, its overall sales, and the overall strategy of the shelf, that can be easier said than done.  Even small changes in the location of a product on the plan-o-gram can have significant impact on its sales.  If the category manager makes enough bad placement decisions, the entire category can decline in sales.  Of course, the converse is true as well.  By bringing a shopper-based strategy to the plan-o-gram, category managers can (and are expected) to materially grow the category as well.

Category managers not only need to make placement decisions for existing items, but for new and future items as well.  As a result, category managers are often privy to their competitor’s new innovation long before it hits market.  This is another reason why maintaining confidentiality, objectivity, and trust are essential to successful category management.

Where Category Management and Shopper Insights Blend Together:

The plan-o-gram drawing process is very time-intensive and can take several months depending on the number of stores and different plan-o-grams that need to be drawn.  Once the plan-o-gram season is completed, category managers focus on developing the next years’ category strategy.  To do this, they are often required to dive deep into point-of-sale data, category trends analysis, and even traceable transaction data.  Often, they look to their company’s shopper insights managers as a resource for this.  Together, they collaborate to integrate the best-available shopper data and trends work as well.

By integrating these sources of data, they develop the next evolution for the plan-o-gram for future cycles.  This could result in recommendations for new items in the assortment, changes in aisle flow, or even deleting items and replacing them with others.  Collaborating with Shopper Insights can help-round-out those stories and give the merchant even greater confidence.  The most important thing is that all recommendations brought to the retailer must be data-based and objective.

Where Category Management and Shopper Insights Separate:

Shopper insights focuses on bringing retailers expertise on the behavior of the shopper.  Shopper insights managers play different roles for different companies.  Some companies use shopper insights managers to support the sales team.  Others use shopper insights managers to support the Category Management team.  Sometimes both.  Depending on who the shopper insights manager is assigned to support, they may or may not carry the same obligations of objectivity and category-focus as category managers.  In cases where shopper insights plays a sales-support role, they are held to different expectations of objectivity.

Secondly, unlike category managers, shopper insights managers rarely touch the plan-o-gram drawing process itself.  When shopper insights is aligned to support Category Management, their work focuses primarily on developing the hindsight, insight, and foresight required to guide current and future strategies and tactics for the retailer.  On a day-to-day basis this means researching, developing, and testing shelf-strategies that can be brought to market.  Like consumer insights managers, this involves a core skill-set of qualitative shopper understanding and methodological rigor in quantitative testing.  Through primary research and testing, the shopper insights manager plays a critical role evaluating and validating the future plans proposed by the category manager through the eyes of the shopper.


Given that some companies are attempting to merge Category Management and Shopper Insights into the same function (and sometimes the same person) it is not usual for there to be confusion between these roles.  Since both play the role of strategic advisor on the future state of the shelf, it is easy to see these roles as essentially the same thing.  What they do is indeed similar.  The biggest difference in the day-to-day “how” they do it.  Category Management is responsible for drawing the plan-o-gram and guiding its strategy.  Shopper insights is responsible for the research and testing that influences that strategy and for authentically representing the needs of the shopper to all stakeholders.

I have the utmost respect for the Category Management profession.  If any category managers want to chime in with their own thoughts, feel free to do so in the comments below.

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