When a major retailer lists a startup’s products, it can be the turning point. Sudden exposure to a much larger audience often provides a catalyst for next-stage business growth. However, the stumbling block for many aspiring entrepreneurs is making the initial connections with those all-important big brand buyers.
“Buyers do want to engage with interesting suppliers but they have to filter ruthlessly,” says Chris Simpson, SME consultant with Business Doctors.
Buyers at Waitrose can get up to 10 speculative pitches a week and sometimes more; via phone, email, and post and sometimes in person. Waitrose pet care buyer Andrea Watson has experienced them all. She says: “Take the trouble to find the name of the buyer you need to speak to, as simply writing ‘Dear Buyer’ shows a lack of research. And don’t say you have been into a Waitrose if you haven’t. It really shows if you don’t know our range for your product area.”
Polite persistence is one thing; bombardment with calls and emails, which Watson has experienced many times, is another. “A follow up email is fine and we will get back to you,” she says. “And don’t be disheartened if we say it’s not one for now; we always keep new products on file for the future.”
Bombarding buyers with product samples can also backfire, as they simply don’t have the storage space. “Send the very best of your range, and ensure they are in date and are transit safe. I’ve often received products that have spilt or exploded,” adds Watson.
Mark Barclay, e-commerce manager at automotive retailer Autosessive, says: “As a buyer, whenever we’re contacted by manufacturers, we’re instantly impressed when they demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the market by benchmarking their product against the competition in terms of the quality, price, and availability. This will show the buyer you know your stuff and deserve to be taken seriously.”
He adds: “If the buyer seems interested, a great way to seal the deal is to offer exclusive distribution for a period and a marketing rebate. If you can also demonstrate how you can support our marketing efforts, or how your products can be personalised with our branding, as buyers, we’re a lot more likely to be interested.”
Holly Anna Scarsella, founder of resort-wear startup Pampelone had no background or experience in approaching buyers, but 18 months on from its launch her brand appears in some of the world’s largest department stores, including Bloomingdale’s and Shopbop.
She says: “I spent weeks researching buyers on LinkedIn, often staying up until four in the morning to study them, and then sent extremely targeted emails. Without any help, I managed to get meetings that other businesses took years to get.”
The best way to get on a buyer’s radar, she says, is to grab their attention with the first few sentences. She did this by highlighting the celebrities who had worn her brand, and how many times it had sold out.
“You need to give them a reason to want to read your email,” says Scarsella. “Instead of just a simple subject line of ‘Pampelone Clothing’, which the buyers will just know is another brand pitch, I used ‘Pampelone: St Tropez comes to Bloomingdale’s’. I always email a buyer and their assistant; buyers have so much admin to do, so sometimes the best approach is via their assistant. And make it personal. Show that you understand them and their work.”
Another way of approaching buyers is via social media. Scarsella found out which bloggers they follow, which publications they look at, and did everything she could to be seen by them.
Practical help with the procurement process is available to entrepreneurs who know where to look. When it came to dealing with large retail buyers, Luke Johnstone and Alex Stewart, co-founders of Pack’d, which makes frozen smoothie kits, were also novices. Johnstone says: “We did make mistakes, approaching buyers in the wrong way. The trouble was, I had no business background and no business connections, and we needed help.”
And they found it, firstly from the Prince’s Trust, where a former retail buyer was available to offer advice to new business owners, and then from Virgin Startup, which runs a Doing Business With Big Business workshop. Open to anyone, the workshop features buyers from big brands like Virgin Trains, Tesco, and John Lewis, sharing their insight into the best ways to approach them and what they are looking for.
Johnstone said: “It’s still tough getting in front of buyers, but at least I have a strategy, and it works, as our products are now stocked in Sainsbury’s, Planet Organic, Whole Foods and Tesco Express.”
Trade shows and exhibitions offer another route into the world of the retail buyer. Health food startup Creative Nature has won listings with TK Maxx, Asda and WH Smith, largely as result of its founder, Julianne Ponan, hitting the trade show circuit and approaching the right buyers directly.
She says: “We attend a lot of shows throughout the year, one of which was Natural Products Europe at the ExCel in London, where I met buyers from Tesco, Ocado and many more. I managed to secure a meeting with Ocado on the stand at one of the shows.”
With a strong product targeted at the right market, patience and persistence will generally pay off. But as is often in business, success can come down to good timing, which was the case for Guy Blaskey, founder of canine health brand Pooch & Mutt. Launched in 2008, the products are listed with major multiples, including Tesco and Waitrose.
Blaskey says: “We timed our approach to Waitrose and Tesco for when they were preparing for a health push with their food products, reducing added sugar and widening their gluten-free range. We contacted them during this time with our grain-free health food for dogs range, as it offered them an opportunity to expand their vision across their pet range too. They were interested, and invited us to send samples, which in turn led to a meeting and a listing. It’s all about how relevant research into a retailer’s plans and vision can reveal how you can help the buyer rather than vice versa.”