Q: How do you get big-box retailers to stock your product?
A: Many small-business owners get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about trying to sell their products to Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Whole Foods Market or other behemoths of the retail world.
Relax, says Karen Waksman: These guys pick up products from small companies all the time. A former manufacturer's representative, Waksman these days proffers her advice on selling to large retailers through a series of books and DVDs (available at RetailMBA.com) and presentations to gatherings such as the annual International Home + Housewares Show and Consumer Electronics Show. "The good news," she says to would-be vendors, "is that buyers are looking for you as much as you want to work with them."
We asked Waksman for tips on selling to the large chains, and we'll get to those. But first let's explore what she considers the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make when pitching their products: failing to meet directly with a buyer. The alternative is filling out a standard form (ugh!) on a store's website. "The only way I know to find out quickly if a buyer is interested in my product is to reach out to them and find out," Waksman says.
How to find buyers? Waksman recommends websites such as ChainStoreGuide.com and TheSalesmansGuide.com, which provide contact information for hundreds of buyers. You could also visit the websites of your most coveted outlets. Target even maintains a "vendor hotline" to answer questions by phone.
Because many stores seek a diverse pool of vendors, Waksman says, make it known if your business is owned by a woman, minority or veteran. Macy's runs a "vendor development program" to help more women and minority business owners sell their wares.
Now, to Waksman's top tips.
Go shopping. Look for products that are similar to yours. Check the pricing. Check, especially, the packaging. "What really matters to the buyer is that it will fit well in stores," Waksman says. So if your competitors have wrapped their products in plastic or tin and you've wrapped yours in burlap, you might want to reconsider--or maybe it makes you stand out? In any event, be aware of how your product will appear next to that of your competition. And, by all means, make sure your packaging deters sticky-fingered shoppers.
Prepare your story. Your pitch must convince buyers that your gizmo will sell. "If they're only buying one product," Waksman says, "why would they take a risk on you?" Make sure you can answer that question.
When opportunity knocks, don't get caught in your bathrobe. If a preliminary test of your product inspires a buyer to order 100,000 more, to be delivered to 500 stores from Walla Walla to Kissimmee, can your manufacturing and distribution systems deliver the goods? "Your job is to have your product retail-ready--[to] have thought through how you're going to manufacture it on a mass scale, how you're going to price it and package it," Waksman says. "It is absolutely possible for the small guy to get sold in stores. It really comes down to how you position yourself. There's always a way."
Christopher Hann is a freelance writer in Lebanon Township, N.J., and an adjunct professor of journalism at Rutgers University.