It seemed like such a great idea: You found the ideal niche market, complete with potential customers by the dozens and profit potential galore. Maybe you already found the ultimate location, or you've put together a stellar e-commerce site that would even put Amazon.com to shame.
There's just one problem. You haven't the foggiest idea where to find all the products you need in order to stock your shelves.
Don't be dismayed. This scenario happens time and again with new entrepreneurs, and it's understandable. Even if you come up with a brilliant idea of a product you want to sell, there's still the tiny detail of finding the actual product. You want to sell XYZ, but you're wondering, "Where exactly can I get a supply of XYZ to sell-and get it for a fair price?"
The good news is, finding what you need isn't quite the needle-in-a-haystack task it's envisioned to be. "My experience is, there are a lot of existing channels used to match up manufacturers and distributors of products. Trade shows and trade magazines are two of the best," says Roger Green, co-founder of Cullinane & Green Inc. , an executive coaching, consulting and publishing firm.
Trade shows alone offer multiple opportunities for you to not only spot upcoming trends, but also to network with potential suppliers and hopefully find just the right product source. The New York International Gift Fair , for instance, attracts thousands of exhibitors, organized by type of product. Attending a trade show also gives you the opportunity to demonstrate you mean business. "By being there, you establish yourself as someone being in business as opposed to being a consumer. The overwhelming majority [of attendees] are serious buyers," says Green, who, along with partner Joe Cullinane, has a diverse background in sales, marketing and senior management that's familiarized him with the ins and outs of product sourcing. "You also get to compare prices across a range, and you get a good sense of the business without having to put a lot of air miles into it."
Trade magazines, meanwhile, can be an inexpensive way to find companies with which you want to correspond. Scour them frequently for mentions of any companies that might offer the products you need, then try to find out whether they'll be exhibiting at any upcoming trade shows you can attend.
Trade organizations or industry associations related to the products you're interested in are yet another potential source of valuable contacts, including international companies. "[These organizations] have trade missions, and they have access to manufacturers from other countries," says Green. He notes that one of their main goals is to match up buyers and sellers.
So how do you go about finding the right industry association? Check out these resources for help in locating the proper channels:
- Directory of Associations from Concept Marketing Group Inc.
- Gale's Encyclopedia of Associations . And if you're not interested in purchasing your own set, most large public libraries carry a copy in their reference department.
- National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States
"You should also look at companies that are regional," adds Cullinane, author of
21st Century Selling
and adjunct professor of marketing at DeVry University's Keller Graduate School of Management. "[Look at] retail stores that are very successful in one [geographic] area and not selling anywhere else."
Start by contacting someone at the company or store and asking them whether they might want to sell their product in your hometown. "If something's been successful in one area, you'll find the company will want to expand but just don't have the resources to do it," says Cullinane.
Finding the suppliers you want is just the first step toward stocking your shelves with the proper inventory. Next, you've got some impressing to do. "You have to be perceived as a company and not a consumer," stresses Cullinane.
"You have to present yourself as someone who is seriously interested in building a business," adds Green, who advises establishing yourself as a business entity as opposed to a sole proprietorship. " 'Inc.' makes all the difference in the world in [the company extending you] credit in the future."
Keep in mind, also, that some firms, especially international ones, often prefer working with registered wholesalers of their products as opposed to retailers, says Green, so be prepared to inquire with a particular company about how you might become one. Companies that offer this option to buyers will likely ask you to fill out a few forms and provide some details on your banking history and so forth. You may need letters of credit and references in order to prove your ability to make good on your word. The advantage of becoming a wholesaler? Wholesale rates, which are often well below the retail prices of a given company.
When making that initial contact with a potential vendor, be prepared to talk about what you do and why they would want to do business with you. Letters of credit from your bank, and letters of reference from people who know you and can vouch for your credibility, are also key-those can help you get an appointment with the vendor in the first place. Green advises starting small: "Find an easy one, and then build from there. If you start dealing with someone local who knows you and can see you, in a few months, you'll have a track record and can use the first one as a reference. It's like starting a fire-use kindling first, not the log."
Look to your social network to determine whether you might know anyone who can help you. Make sure you tell friends and family what you're doing-you never know who they might know. "It's amazing the results you'll get [when you spread the word]," says Cullinane.
One caveat: If you do business with someone you know, make sure you clearly establish the terms of the relationship from the start. As Green cautions, "It's still a business relationship at the end of the day," cautions Green. "There's a saying among lawyers: The best contracts are drawn between people who don't trust each other." So enlist the help of an attorney who knows the ins and outs of drawing up the kind of contract you need-the money will be well-spent in the long run.
So You've Got a Supplier
Once you've found the companies that manufacture the products you want to sell, you need to get samples and be sure they're exactly what you want. "Be prepared to invest in that," says Green. "Sometimes companies will supply samples at no charge, but not always. And don't go looking for freebies-that can ruin your credibility."
How many vendors do you need? "Just enough," says Cullinane. In B2B situations, you'll likely want at least two suppliers, maybe three. It's a good idea to have backup suppliers in case something ever falls through with one of your regulars. "A lot of times you build your business around one supplier," explains Cullinane, "and if something [happens to them], you could be out of business."
Above all, remember the most important element of a successful retail business: the customer. Even if you've got a handle on where to get your product, you'll want to make sure you haven't forgotten the crucial step of determining whether that product will be met with a warm reception. "An entrepreneur needs to look at 'What do my customers need that they can't get?' " says Cullinane. "Satisfy that niche. Be the person who provides that."
- Use the Web in your search for suppliers. "With powerful search engines like
, you can locate suppliers all over the world," says product-sourcing guru Roger Green. "It's a low-cost way to go exploring."
- The Thomas Register online will help you locate companies and products manufactured in North America. You can also place orders online and view thousands of online company catalogs and Web sites.
- Don't overlook the U.S. Department of Commerce in your search for suppliers. "Let them know you want to do business, and they'll do some match-ups," says Green.
Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.