17 / 12 / 2020

Are You Being Served? (Or Are You on the Menu?)


An email pops in from leaders at a supposed vendor partner. But the more you read, the more you realize that they’re not your partners at all. They’re aliens, they’re hungry and you’re easy prey, pardner.

Carey Smith | Founding Contrarian

An email appeared in my inbox recently by mistake. But as any self-respecting guru will tell you, there are no mistakes, only lessons. This one illustrated the rapacious nature of retailers so clearly that I couldn’t help sharing it.

The email assumed I remained a Lowe’s “Vendor Partner,” a “dear” one, in fact, from my time leading the fan company. After some gratuitous niceties and self-congratulation about alleged sales growth during the COVID-induced home project mania, it cut to the chase: “It will take investment from all of us to keep the momentum going.” Uh-oh. Just what kind of “investment” are we talking about, pray tell?

“Lowe’s executive team has made the decision to implement a non-negotiable, infrastructure growth allowance of 0.75% applicable to gross purchases of all vendors, including those who are online only, beginning January 1, 2021.” So what’s in it for me, er, those poor schmucks who actually are “vendor partners?”

“As our dedicated vendor partner, this will result directly in everyone’s shared success.” Say what? That’s what’s called a dangling modifier where I come from, pardner. And “shared success” is not what I’m feeling. I’m feeling like I’m over a non-negotiable barrel.

“Our finance team and your merchant partners are happy to share more details and further discuss this win/win opportunity with you. As always, thank you for your continued partnership with Lowe’s.”

I can just imagine whoever wrote “win/win opportunity” — I picture them rubbing their hands together gleefully, confident that they’ll be remunerated well for that pecksniffian turn of phrase.

Words are so cheap. What kind of real “partner” would ever consider treating you this way? Yet again, I’m reminded of an episode of The Twilight Zone — this time, the one where the aliens are nice to humans because they plan to eat them. “To Serve Man,” it’s called, after the name of their cookbook. The Simpsons later made a parody of it, with a slightly happier ending.

When I was at the fan company, retailers constantly tried to pull this same stunt on us. But since we sold direct, even combined, Lowe’s and Home Depot represented only 1 percent of our sales, if that, so we could tell them to stick their “win/win opportunities” where the sun don’t shine. But other manufacturers rely heavily on them for sales and don’t have that luxury. So what can they do instead — since raising prices obviously isn’t an option when you’re playing by Lowe’s rules. Lay people off? Use cheaper components?  That’s why we tell the companies we partner with to never become beholden to any retailer.

I see the same kind of hypocrisy with other investors. So many VCs make a song and dance about being there to serve founders, only to leave those same founders floundering. We Serve Founders, indeed.

Back at the fan company, one of our guiding principles was to treat our vendors — as well as our customers and employees — as we’d want to be treated ourselves, because that’s what true partners do. 

That Golden Rule applies here at Unorthodox Ventures, too.