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Thinking Outside the Big Box

Check out these alternatives to major retail stores that can help your new product reach your target audience.

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When launching a new product, it's only natural to think of big box retailers--Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Babies "R" Us--as the pot of gold at the end of the sales and marketing rainbow. Certainly these stores have unparalleled distribution throughout the country and even the world. But depending on your product, you have many other options.

Many inventors and entrepreneurs have had great success with sales channels that may not be top-of-mind--and may even be considered offbeat or unconventional. Either way, they provide different routes for connecting with your customers. They also can be stepping stones that build awareness for your product and establish a track record that'll eventually help you sell to the bigger retailers.

Remember, not every option will work for every product or product line; part of your sales strategy involves finding the most effective way to link your product with your target market. Here are just a few possibilities that can help you start thinking outside the big box.

Direct sales or network marketing. This sales strategy was made famous by companies like Tupperware and Mary Kay. Since then, many other companies, such as The Pampered Chef, Creative Memories and Southern Living, have found great success with this model.

A direct sales approach involves employing a large-scale, commission-based sales force whose members are invested in the success of your company. Sales agents typically host home parties, during which they demonstrate products to the target market. Then they start building a network of friends and acquaintances who host their own home parties--with a new group of consumers--in return for incentives or free product. These friends and acquaintances may become direct salespeople for the brand as well.

Companies that use this model value a personal approach, which promotes a stronger connection between the brand and the potential customer. It's like combining marketing and sales in one pitch--when a friend vouches for a product and sings its praises, you're more likely to purchase it. In addition, a company can build an army of salespeople who are passionate about its brand and who are interested in starting their own businesses and achieving financial independence.

School fundraisers. Do you regularly buy wrapping paper, candy bars or magazines from the kids in your neighborhood? Do you still make your yearly Girl Scout cookie order? School and sports team fundraisers are a way for these organizations to raise money--and they're offering an increasing variety of products. Think yours might be a good fit? You might consider marketing your product to schools, community groups and sports teams as a potential fundraising product. You can do this by striking out on your own, offering groups the tools needed to sell your product, including sell sheets, order forms, prizes and incentives. This works best if your company offers a variety of products. You also could join an established fundraising organization or catalog that offers a variety of products. Try starting with the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers at .

Promotional partnerships. Are you more likely to buy a product if it comes with a free gift (toothpaste, for instance, that comes with free dental floss, or a razor with free shaving gel)? While these freebies are often in-company promotions (Colgate makes the toothpaste and the dental floss), big brands are sometimes willing to consider a cross-promotion or "on-pack" promotion with a product if it's the right fit.

If you've launched a new dog treat, for example, maybe one of the major dog food brands would be interested in bundling a sample with their product to offer an additional incentive for consumers. Of course, if that brand already has its own line of dog treats, they probably won't take you up on your offer. So use your common sense if you pursue this route. What's the benefit to you? You can sell a large volume of your product to the manufacturer, and you'll generate awareness by linking with a popular, established brand.

Flea markets and swap meets. In many areas of the country, flea markets and swap meets are a huge opportunity for sales, with loyal customers who frequent them. This can be an excellent grassroots channel for selling and building awareness for your brand. For instance, Jeanne Bice of The Quacker Factory began selling her women's clothing line in flea markets more than 10 years ago. She gradually grew her brand and today sells millions of dollars in product annually through QVC.

The beauty of selling through flea markets is you're in control; there are no third-party retailers or catalogs to decide whether they'll take on your product. All you need to do is rent the space and display your product, and you'll have access to your market. If it becomes a proven sales channel, you can expand into flea markets across your region or the country. It's also a good way to build awareness for your products over time, thereby establishing a track record for sales that can take you to the next level of distribution. To learn more, visit the National Flea Market Association at .

Consumer trade shows. In many markets, annual trade shows are held for the general public, including large home and garden shows, craft fairs, gift shows and art festivals. These shows also provide a unique sales and marketing opportunity if your product is the right fit. Did you create a revolutionary new cleaning product? A home and garden show can be a great venue to demonstrate and sell it. Have a newfangled wedding offering? Consider hitting the bridal shows.

Consumer trade shows offer a captive audience consisting of a highly focused segment of your target market--it doesn't get much better than that. All you need to do is rent your space, create a compelling booth and engage your audience. Some shows even offer exhibitors credit card services (for a fee) if you don't have your own merchant account. For more information on trade shows, go to The Ultimate Tradeshow Resource at .

Vending machine sales. This isn't just for gumballs anymore. Do you have a product that could be an impulse or convenience purchase and might sell like hotcakes in the right location? Then consider selling in vending machines. U.S. vending machines are more sophisticated than ever with some sleek machines offering a wide variety of fresh, frozen and healthy food.

Vending companies are also slowly expanding into new offerings. At the San Francisco airport, for example, you can buy a cell phone or digital camera via vending machine--no quarters necessary, a credit card will do. And trendsetter Apple computer now has in-store iPod vending machines. There are also vending machines for medical supplies, DVDs and more. For more information on vending machines, start with the National Automatic Merchandising Association site at .

In sum, the more creatively you think about sales, the more successful you'll be. Leave no stone unturned when it comes to reaching your target market, and you'll surely connect with them in the end.

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