How to get past the buyers and get your product stocked
Winning over the high-street gatekeepers can be an arduous task. Here's our guide to getting listed
Seeing their products on view in the multiples is the dream of many entrepreneurs. A space on the shelves of the country’s leading retailers is one of the most public and esteemed endorsements your product can get. And with the right approach you could see your sales, and profits, soar.
But getting there can be a hard slog, and even if you’re offered a deal, there are many factors to consider to ensure it’s commercially viable. We asked the buyers to tell us what they look for in a supplier, and spoke to the entrepreneurs who’ve made it onto their shelves about how to get there and then make it work.
Before you even think about approaching a retailer, you need to do your homework. Buyers agreed that a surprising number of businesses fall down due to a lack of research. “You need a compelling sales case,” says Mark Langley, sales director at sports nutrition brand Maximuscle, which sells in Argos, Tesco, Boots and many more. “You need to understand how they work as a retailer, what makes them tick and how your proposition would appeal to them and their customers.”
Retail buyers only have a finite amount of shelf space, so tell them why your product fits with their brand, offers something new and will help their business grow, as well as yours. Knowing who you’re dealing with is crucial. The Firebox brand, for example, is synonymous with breaking new products. You go there to find gifts you won’t see on the mass market. “If suppliers approach us with something that’s being sold on the High Street, it’s less likely to be something we’re going to get excited about,” says Firebox managing director Christian Robinson.
Research will tell you if a retailer’s brand depends on an element of exclusivity, but often this can work to your advantage, too. “Because of our reputation, people look at Firebox to see the next big thing. Our suppliers then get calls from some of the very big retailers,” says Robinson. He adds that their PR effort focuses on their products. The greater exclusivity they get, the louder they shout about it and the more demand and buzz is generated.
Finally, every product category has its own quality and safety standards at UK and European Union levels, and retailers won’t touch products that don’t comply. Check the websites of official government bodies for your category, such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and be prepared to produce the relevant paperwork.
“You’ve got to figure out who your buyer is, what category your product is in, explain why they should take something off their shelves to put yours in its place, and say why yours will sell better,” advises Paul Lindley, founder of healthy kids food brand Ella’s Kitchen.
Of course, there is no blueprint for getting listed, but you can help your case. Retail buyers will be inundated with offers, so make yours stand out. Sending samples can help. “Everyone has an inbox full of stuff, and it’s too easy to email,” says Shed Simove, a designer of novelty products sold in retailers such as Joy and Urban Outfitters. “Send a prototype or a visualisation in the post with a box of chocolates.” Robinson agrees, adding: “An email is less likely to elicit enthusiasm from us than actually sending the product itself.”
Persistence also pays. “I really had to chase and work out whether I’d approached the right person,” recalls Lindley, who sent an introductory letter and presentation followed by endless phone calls and emails.
If you’re targeting the supermarkets, timing can be everything. Find out when they do category reviews, which occur once or twice a year, explains Lindley: “You only have certain opportunities to get launched, which is when retailers rebuild their area, working out what new products to introduce, what they can move and how the shelf will fit back together.”
Trade fairs are a great way of meeting retail buyers face-to-face. Rather than shelling out for a stand, Simove contacts exhibitors from the previous year, and asks them to sell his product for a slice of the money, leaving him free to wander round and make contacts. “There’s always a way to do it cheaply,” he says.
Before you can close a deal, buyers will want reassurance that you can meet the volume requirements, delivery timetables and manage your supply chain effectively. Turning around two weeks into your trial when you’re late with a delivery and protesting that the van broke down isn’t good enough. “They will need products packed in a particular way and there’s no room for error,” says Langley, who advises entrepreneurs to think carefully about the logistics before agreeing to supply. He adds: “Can you cope with huge volume demands from a space and a cashflow perspective?”
When meeting the buyers, think about what they might ask you and ensure you’ve got all bases covered. “They expect category information and details on your own sales and market share,” continues Langley. “They’d expect to see a plan delivering a certain amount of profit to them in a 12-month period.”
Although some, like Firebox, will want to work together on marketing and PR, most will expect to see a plan, detailing how you intend to promote the product once it’s in-store, along with your own marketing strategy.
There’s always scope for negotiation, and several factors can strengthen your position. Naturally, it hinges on how much they want your product. “If it’s a me-too or has no real point of difference, their only reason for stocking your product is that they get a better margin, so you’ve got to be able to make it cheaper,” says Lindley. If you have a differentiated product or a brand that ticks their boxes, you’re in a stronger position. If you’ve got sales elsewhere and can market it yourself, even better. The more you’re going to have to rely on the retailer to generate demand, the greater margin you’re likely to have to give as an incentive for them to work harder selling it.
However, if the numbers don’t add up, or the margins or payment terms are not viable, you have to walk away. “It’s very tempting, when you’re looking for your first listing, to accept something that isn’t sustainable from your perspective,” says Lindley. “But it’s very difficult to claw back margin later.”
Langley concurs: “You can only offer what you can afford. You have to stick to your guns. If your business can’t cope with the volumes they ask for on an operational or cashflow level, or they squeeze you too hard on margin, there’s no point going ahead. Keep profit at the top of your mind, not the glory of selling more.”
“The only way to stay on the right side of the retailer is to keep growing your sales,” says Langley, adding that you must be in a position to deliver either sales or margin growth. “If you’re a business like us, you deliver sales growth by investing in marketing, bringing more consumers to what is still a relatively small category. If you’re in a more mature market, you have to produce new products and design formats that entice people to buy them over someone else’s.”
Robinson adds that tight processes are important too. “Suppliers that are efficient in terms of stock turnaround are good to work with,” he says. “Quick product shipping, accurate and efficient invoicing, and great post-purchase customer service are all really important.”
Just remember, there’s always someone else knocking on their door. They’ve only got so much shelf space and they need to make it work best for them.
How to impress a buyer
Make sure your product is original and different enough from products we already stock – we will be less interested if we sell an identical product (and not interested at all if you are pitching a “copy” product)
Look through our existing range and approach us with products that look like they will fit our brand values and customer base
Don’t wait till you’ve got your product stocked by other stores
Send us a brief email with an overview of the product concept, its unique selling points, target audience, suggested retail and cost price
Have a clear understanding of your launch timelines and product availability
Establish what safety certification will be required
Provide post-purchase customer care, technical support (if appropriate)
Stay on the Ball
Move quickly, be responsive, keep up communication, remain flexible