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Shelf Life

Want to get your product on grocers' shelves? Don't go it alone.

The next time you go shopping at your local grocery store, take note of the vast number of products lining the shelves. How did they get there--and how can you get your product there, too?

Today, securing shelf space isn't easy--especially if you own a small company with only one product. The truth is, it's costly, time-consuming and complicated. It takes a savvy entrepreneur to find the right representation and distribution channels for each market.

This month, I'd like to share with you the success story of a small, one-product company that was able to secure shelf space in grocery stores nationwide in just under two years. The company is Clean Shower LP in Jacksonville, Florida; the product is Clean Shower; and the key to the product's success was the Association of Independent Marketing Services Corp. (AIMS), a Chicago-based sales and management services company and association of brokerage firms.

You may have heard about Clean Shower on the radio or seen its inventor, Robert H. Black, on television singing the product's praises. Clean Shower is a biodegradable spray that removes soap scum, hard-water deposits, stains and mildew from a shower without scrubbing. Black, a chemist who invented the product in 1993 after trying to clean his shower with ineffective products, gave samples to family and friends. When they loved it and wanted more, he knew he was onto something.

Confident the best places to sell Clean Shower were in grocery stores, Black did some research and found that grocery stores purchase most of their products through representatives known as food brokers. So he personally approached several brokers--and got shot down each time.

Finally, in April 1995, Black got his first break when he spoke to a group of venture capitalists about his product and gave away free samples. Paul Porter, whose wife was pregnant at the time, was in the audience that day. Because he was on shower-cleaning duty, he went home and put the sample to the test. He was so impressed that a week later, he set up a meeting with Black. The two became partners, with Porter as president and CEO of Clean Shower and Black as chairman of the board.

Black couldn't have found a better partner. Porter's brother, Phil, had a connection to a food broker, and, working together for the remainder of 1996, the brothers were able to establish distribution in two markets: Southern Florida and Boston. Thanks to a creative radio campaign, Clean Shower achieved great product awareness and sold extremely well.

Despite their success, the partners were frustrated. Clean Shower was a great-selling product, but expanding into other markets was consuming too much time. They felt they were paying a huge price in lost opportunities because they weren't able to expand fast enough.

In January 1997, Paul Porter received some strategic advice from the owner of a food brokerage company. He told Porter to set up a meeting with AIMS, which, among other things, helps consumer products companies achieve their sales goals. AIMS locates the right brokers to represent a company's product, develops sales materials and conducts industry research.

After his first meeting with representatives of AIMS, Porter realized that having the company on its team would give Clean Shower the clout it needed to sway brokers. So Porter hired AIMS to help expedite Clean Shower's market distribution and, as Porter put it, "to validate our product."

The first thing AIMS did was research. It reviewed Clean Shower's market plan, verified its financial backing, wrote a sales manual to be used by the brokers, and conducted research on the Clean Shower product in its current markets. AIMS assessed the product's strengths and evaluated the company's current marketing program for maximum effectiveness. Finding both the company and the product to be sound, AIMS began creating a broker network for Clean Shower.

AIMS representatives contacted prospective brokerage companies and presented them with the opportunity to represent the product. AIMS then gave Clean Shower a written recommendation of the top brokers to consider in each market.

Within nine months of hiring AIMS, Clean Shower had landed broker representation throughout the country. By last December, Clean Shower could be found in every U.S. market and had achieved sales of more than $13 million.

Tomima Edmark, the woman famous for her Topsy Tail invention has now turned her creative talents to the competitive retail arena of intimate apparel, HerRoom and HisRoom.

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This article was originally published in the October 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Shelf Life.

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