Now that you've invented the very best product in the world, it's time to swim out into the sea of distributors and retailers and get your product onto shelves. A challenging process, to be sure, but experts note that with a lot of perseverance and a good helping of entrepreneurial ingenuity, it's possible to get your product into a big-box store, on a home shopping channel and even into luxury retailers. "If you've got a product, you've got three issues," says Jay Abraham, founder of The Abraham Group, a strategic marketing and management consulting firm in Rolling Hills Estates, California. "First, is it something people understand? Second, is it something that immediately projects its [benefit or appeal]? Third, is it really unique? A lot of what you'll do with it depends on what your product is."
Even though you know you've created a great product, you need to spend time researching the types of retailers that will be a good fit. The founders of Belli Cosmetics, Annette Rubin and her husband, Jason Rubin, M.D., quickly realized that typical retail stores weren't the only venue for their line of maternity skin-care products. Inspired by the birth of their first child, Annette, 36, and Jason, 37, had an idea for skin-care products that would be safe for pregnant women. They launched their company in 2000 and started peddling the products to nontraditional locales like spas and the offices of obstetricians and gynecologists. Annette, a former Estée Lauder executive, evaluated exactly how to find the right match. "How do I deliver an upscale prestige product to market, but broaden its points of distribution and keep it appropriate to those points of distribution?" she asked herself. "Where can I take this line where it'll still make sense for the brand? I can take it into independent maternity boutiques, high-end pharmacies, OB/GYN [offices], department stores, spas and even gift boutiques."
Marketing your product through a targeted niche can save you a ton of money. Instead of spending your precious resources marketing your product on too large a scale--say, to magazines or newspapers that serve everyone--it's more effective to pick out targeted groups that are more likely to need your product. "Go to websites, groups, more favorably disposed retail organizations--any selling channel that would be insanely receptive to your product," says Abraham. "Give them an advantageous deal in exchange for letting you aggressively promote it to their group."
That type of savvy targeting served Issaquah, Washington-based Belli Cosmetics well. Not only can you find their products in those doctors' offices and maternity boutiques frequented by moms-to-be, but also in certain flagship Nordstrom stores as well as at Whole Foods and Drugstore.com, shooting projected year-end sales to more than $2 million.
If your ambitions lean more toward the big-box retailers like Target or Costco, you're going to need a solid plan, an iron will and probably some connections to make your new product stand out over the tons of pitches big retailers get every day. The founders of CanopyChair.com in Columbia, Maryland, enlisted the help of a third-party group to get their product--a folding lawn chair with a canopy that doubles as the chair's storage bag--into stores like Dick's Sporting Goods, Target and Winn-Dixie. "Getting into retailers is a major challenge when you have no contacts and you're starting from the ground floor," says co-founder Sean O'Brien, 27. "We used a third-party [sales rep] who constantly worked with one of our employees to beat down their doors and get [the chair] on their shelves." Launching their company in 2004, O'Brien and co-founders Steve Tinto, 40, Paul Robinett, 40, and Dave Reeb, 41, made the connection with the sales rep at a trade show, which eventually led to Target doing a test run of the Canopy Chair in early 2006.
A small test run is likely the only way a large retailer is going to give your product a shot, says Abraham, so build that into your strategy from the beginning. For instance, outline why your product is a good fit for their stores and customer base, show that you understand their needs and suggest a trial run in five to 10 of their representative facilities--large, small, rural, urban, etc. "That's what they're going to do anyway," says Abraham, "but if you show the enlightenment and the foresight of preemptively [suggesting] that, you'll normally get their respect."
Retailers also like to see metrics and hard data before taking a bet on a new product, so you might consider pitching to smaller, local independent retailers first and securing some solid sales data. Then, armed with those statistics and store success stories, you can make your product even more attractive to larger retailers, says Abraham.
Getting sales reps to help introduce your product to retailers can be a challenge, so try to negotiate deals that are mutually beneficial. "You might approach [a sales rep] to sell your product in exchange for equity in the product or maybe even the company," says Abraham. "Their motivation and focus will have more to do with your success."
Securing strategic partnerships proved to be one of the biggest boosts for the Canopy Chair inventors. "If you don't have the contacts, be ready to partner with someone who [does]," says O'Brien. "Partner with people who have complementary skill sets and [look for] a win-win situation. If both parties can do well, then that's the best route for everyone." The strategy proved profitable--CanopyChair.com has 2007 sales projections of more than $10 million.
Spread the Word
Get adept at convincing others how great your product is because that trait will help you get your foot in the door of nearly every retailer imaginable. "It goes beyond just convincing [a buyer] that your product can sell and be profitable," says George T. Haley, director of the Center for International Industry Competitiveness and a marketing professor at the University of New Haven School of Business in West Haven, Connecticut. "You have to give them something that indicates that they have a real winner on hand--that your product might differentiate them and be truly beneficial."
Highlighting the unique aspects of her company, For Goodness Cakes, Jodi Braun, 51, pitched retailers with the hook that her gourmet cakes are a cross between cheesecakes and coffeecakes in both taste and texture. This Apple Valley, Minnesota, entrepreneur entered a contest for new vendors on QVC and presented her cakes in a room with thousands of other vendors, but she caught the judge's attention with her pitch. "The judge told me, 'Had you said it was a cheesecake, I would've never talked to you, but because you said it was a cross between a cheesecake and a coffeecake, I'm interested in your story.'" At press time, Braun's deal with QVC was still in progress.
Braun's pitch was one element of For Goodness Cakes' success; the other was capitalizing on the viral word-of-mouth buzz her cakes created. After creating 12 cake varieties, including White Chocolate Crème and Fudge Marble Swirl, based on her mother's recipe, she launched her company in 2002. She networked with everyone she knew--even the health-conscious patrons of her local gym loved the decadent treat. Says Braun, "People would say to me, 'I'm working out to eat your cake.'"
Braun made the most of every connection and, as with many viral marketing programs, one connection led to another. A friend who she'd met at one of her cake demonstrations had a connection at Target, which led to Braun's cakes launching in the gourmet shop at Target.com. Also available in Midwest grocery chain Lunds & Byerly's, For Goodness Cakes should hit $1 million in revenue for 2007.