How to sell to the big retailers – advice for small businesses

If your new business makes a product that you want to sell to the general public, then one of the most important factors in your future success will be great distribution.

Inventing the best product in the world that will genuinely change people’s life is actually just the start of the process. It doesn’t mean anything unless people put their hand in their pocket and hand over money. And in that respect you have two problems to overcome: getting them to know about it, and getting them to buy it.

One of the quickest ways to sell your product is to get listed by the big retailers

Without a bucket of money to throw at promotion, the quickest way to solve both of those problems is getting your product listed by big retailers with multiple stores. But while the average supermarket stocks thousands of different products – or lines as they call them – getting them to stock yours will be tough.

It’s called getting a listing. And every product must fight for its place in store. The big retailers are experts at maximising the profit from every single centimetre of their shops. Each chain employs teams of people called buyers, who are charged with sourcing the products that will make them the most money.

As you can imagine, they are constantly being inundated with requests. It’s said that just getting a meeting with a buyer is a giant hurdle in itself, never mind persuading them to place an order.

But research by Bytestart has found there are a number of things you can do to maximise your chances of getting a meeting and turning it into your first big order. And don’t worry that you’re not a big enough company – small businesses have just as much chance of being a supplier as big businesses do.

Get a meeting with the relevant buyer

Pick your target retailers with care. Could you really imagine your product on their shelves? Do the best research you can – go shopping! Then ring head office to ask for the contact details of the buyer for your category of product Send them an email, followed by a phone call a week later. Be confident but not cocky, and be clear why you think this product is right for them and they should meet with you.

Have a clear point of difference

Many supermarkets are shouting about how they buy some items from local suppliers – could this be you? Or what else makes your product a must-have on the shelves?

Think about your product as a customer will and look at where it fits in the marketplace. If your product is the second 100% recyclable product of its kind, where’s the incentive for the buyer to buy (especially if the first is from a multinational company with hundreds of other listings)?

Understand your product inside out

This means technical data as well as knowing why someone would buy it. When you get a meeting, you’ll need to be able to talk with confidence about where the product is made, by who, and using what kind of materials. Remember that there is pressure on retailers to “go green”, so the more you can do that as a potential supplier the more attractive you will be.

Have prototypes ready

Take them along to the meeting and be prepared to leave them. Nothing sells better than a great product left on a desk. If you can show that your product is already selling, even if that’s just through a website, that’s a bonus.

Prepare systems

If a buyer places an order, how quickly will you have manufacturing, distribution and storage in place? Buyers won’t expect a new small business to have a giant factory sitting waiting for someone to press the “go” button. But they will want a realistic estimate of how long it can be till you can have product in their warehouses.

Be patient

Getting a listing can take time. And when you do get it, it may take even longer to actually get the product on the shelf. Any business that’s relying on selling a product into retailers needs great funding and an excellent grip on cash flow.

Get help

You might find a sales agent with experience of selling to retailers. Better still, how about someone who’s already been there, done that and could mentor you?

Once you’ve got your listing you may also need help to keep it! Getting marketing and PR support to push your product outside of stores is a sensible way to drive sales up, which will help you maintain your listing and possibly gain others for new products you are yet to invent.

Last updated: 10th September, 2021

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