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Getting stocked in supermarkets

How do you sell your product to retailers? Startups members discuss how to convince the major stores to take you on

For some small businesses, getting their products into supermarkets is largely based good old-fashioned luck. Fraser Doherty, founder of Eat Super Ltd, was running a very small firm making his own jams. At a buyer's fair in Edinburgh he got talking with a buyer from Waitrose who was impressed by the product. In a good stroke of coincidence, some new Waitrose stores were opening in Edinburgh, and Doherty found somewhere to produce the jam on a large scale, and was soon in Waitrose nationwide.

Similarly, Justine Cather, founder of luxury fudge company Brown Sugar, was running a very small-scale business until she took a stall at London's Borough market. Waitrose again spotted the potential and made an approach, soon followed by the other large supermarkets.

You have to obviously be extremely lucky to get that type of break, and ready to take on the challenge when the time comes. There's lots you can do to increase your chances of getting into supermarkets, starting off with actively  approaching them.

It's likely you will send letter after letter to supermarkets without hearing anything for a while. Paul Lindley, who set up children's food business Ella's Kitchen explains that he sent letters and made phone calls into Sainsbury's, “then followed up with many, many phone calls and emails – never getting to actually speak to anyone over the next few months.” Eventually he made contact with the right person who invited him in to talk about the product. His pitch and the product impressed her so much she agreed to trial the product. A trial period is almost always how small business start their presence in supermarkets.

As James Averdieck, who set up Gu chocolate puds puts it: “Supermarkets get sent tons of new products every week so buyers don't want to see you. They'll say ‘send it in and we'll have a look it'. I made sure I got to sell to them,” And he made sure he went in with a ‘ready-to-go' product – not just a concept. “We took them the finished, packaged Real McCoy and proved the supply chain was set up. Too many people see them as business advisers who'll help you with your brand – they're not.”


Startups member JessH says: “Firstly, make sure you’re targeting the right retailers.   Do your homework – does their customer base align with who buys (or you think will buy) your product? Would the product be right for their stores?

Next, if you’re confident that the retailers you want to approach, are a good match and the product will really sell to their specific customers, then usually the best point of call is the buyer for the category in which your product sits (for example, soft drinks, baby products, crisps and snacking etc.)

Getting their details can sometimes be a little tricky as head offices usually won’t give them out to anyone and will funnel you down a ‘new business line’ which are usually very slow going. I once got a product listed this way but it took 12 months! There are other ways to find out their name and contact details, you just need to be creative (think social media, networking, industry events etc).

Once you have their details, think about your approach. You can go for the persistent method of continuously sending emails, calling, sending samples until they eventually talk to you (or tell you to sod off) or think about different, more creative ways to get their attention. Retailers tend to have ‘ranging windows’ where they review their range (often every 6 / 12 months) and then smaller amendments and ‘one in one outs’ throughout the rest of the year.

You ideally want a face-to-face meeting to present your product. Be persistent and if you are confident the product is right for the store keep going until you know why they aren’t interested in seeing it.

There are a few things that you then need to think about when you get to this stage around how to structure your pitch.”

Another Startups member adds “With the big groups sometimes you can be lucky and a supplier has let them down, and they will give you a trial run. But its mainly down to price and if they are happy with the suppliers they have, then you have a slim chance of getting in. But if you have something different to sell then they may well trial you, but be careful – if you do get in – if you mess up supplying them, they wont give you another chance.”

Don't forget, you may benefit from selling to slightly smaller, less well-known chains to start with and then tackling the bigger ones when you get some good figures behind you.



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