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How to get your product listed by a big retailer

Buyers are busy people so make sure you stick in their mind.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 15 May 2015

Getting into a supermarket or department store can transform your business from a cottage industry into a global brand. But the process isn't always straightforward. Getting in front of a buyer can be a really difficult challenge and when you do, what should you say? Here's some points from entrepreneurs who have been there, done that.

Start off small

If you've got a seriously desirable and well-polished product then there's no harm in hitting up the big name buyers right from the get-go, but there are merits to focusing on small retailers to begin with too. Damien Kennedy and Greg Duggan created Wheyhey, a sugar-free high-protein ice cream that's now listed with Holland & Barratt, Ocado and Odeon Cinemas, but they didn't start with such high-profile customers.

'We bought a mobile freezer unit and traipsed up and down central London, selling it to independent gyms, health stores; and everywhere we sold it it became a best-selling product,' says Kennedy. As well as bringing in some cash, dealing with these smaller customers helped them refine the product and their approach to the business.

'We learned about ideal location in store, point of sale. We got the chance to communicate with our consumers on a one-to-one basis, because we did the samplings in the small stores so we learned a hell of a lot about our brand, and what consumers wanted from our brand. And we learned a hell of a lot from the buyers at these small retailers.'

Be persistent

Sometimes getting in front of a buyer is easy-peesy. 'We rang up, made an appointment and literally took a suitcase of products that we’d begged stealed and borrowed, took it along to see the buyer and had a meeting; It was literally as simple as that,' says Rebecca Rowlands, co-founder of baby products company Bizzi Growin, of how she got the company's products in front of a Tesco buyer.

But a lot of the time you're going to need to be persistent. Wheyhey's founders came up with the product after visiting an Odeon, so they were really keen to get the cinema chain on board. 'We literally chased Odeon for maybe eight, nine, 10 months, consistently calling trying to get a meeting, unbelievable persistence and patience,' says Kennedy. 'Eventually we got in front of the right people.' 

Do your research

Anyone's who's watched the toe-curling pitching tasks on The Apprentice knows that one of the most excruciating pitfalls of approaching a retailer is failing to understand what they're all about. 'It really is finding out everything you can about that retailer's consumer, where your brand fits into the people that shop in that store, how you're going to attract new people to that store,' says Kennedy. 'Basically, how are you going to make that buyer's plan look better at the end of the year.'

'It’s knowing your industry and understanding what the consumer wants – and being able to convey hat across to the client,' adds Bizzi Growin's other founder Cathy Bolton

Try trade shows

Neil Westwood created Magic Whiteboard, which makes rolls of flexible whiteboard and landed investment on Dragons' Den. Having celebrity investors on board didn't mean he could avoid the legwork involved in getting in front of the right people, though. 'You can obviously phone them up, email them, but they get so many calls that they don’t really take you seriously,' he says. 'We find going to trade shows is quite effective when the buyers come around.'

Be sure to agree terms

If you're successful in getting a buyer on board then try not to get too swept up in excitement. As well as the key issue of price, you need to take the time to understand the retailer's terms and conditions – particularly when you will get paid and if there are any additional charges for promotions and the like. As we've seen with host of recent scandals, some retailers squeeze their suppliers so be prepared to take a hit on the money you are expecting to receive

It will take a lot of persistence and legwork - and of course a decent product to begin with - but landing a spot on supermarket shelves needn't be too much of a chore.

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