Achieving distribution with a major retailer or department store can be an important step towards catapulting your business to the success you’ve always dreamed of. However, before you can get your products on their shelves, you’ve got get through the store’s buyer. The good news is retail buyers are always on the lookout for new stuff. The bad news is many business owners with good products walk away from meetings empty-handed.
The retail buyer
To appreciate why this happens, it’s beneficial to understand who the retail buyer is and what they are responsible for. Many of the mistakes people make stem from a misunderstanding of what they do.
At the turn of the 20th century, the retail buyer was a selector not unlike that seen in Mr Selfridge. At this time there was an individual buyer for nearly every product from gloves to perfumes to pens. Buyer-managers came next who not only selected products but were also responsible for running the shop floor. They drove both sell-in (buying in product) and sell-through (marketing the product to customers). This type of buying went on into the 1970s and 80s.
With the exception of Fenwick and a few independents, today, things are very different. Central buying means one person typically has responsibility over a whole group of stores. These guys really need to know their stuff. They have to marry the latest trends with the store’s look and its customer profile, whilst taking into account regional variations. If the trend is blue jumpers, they will not only look for styles that fit their customers but also find a way to translate the blue trend across the whole store. You’ll start to see blue in shop windows, in catalogues and in ad campaigns.
Today’s buyers are under immense pressure. As well as being on top of the latest trends and keeping the store feeling fresh and refreshed they also take responsibility for the performance of what they buy. That’s not to say that they are responsible for sell-through. They’re not. But if something is not selling well, they are held accountable and must have a suitable exit policy.
A common misconception
This distinction between being accountable for what you buy and being responsible for sell-through is important and, in my mind, the reason why entrepreneurs fail to secure a retail contract. I find many are convinced that the store is responsible for sell-through and therefore seriously underestimate the investment needed to be successful in-store.
The reality is that stores do not have infinitely expanding shelves. In order to add a new product range buyers must first remove an established one. To do that, even when an established brand is under-performing is a risk, and retail buyers are not risk takers.
If you’re going to be successful in removing an existing brand, you are going to have to convince the buyer that you are a risk worth taking.
1. Your product range needs a clear USP
Stores don’t need too many products. For example within cosmetics, organic or natural is not a USP. It needs to be something new, better or bring a new genre of consumers through the door.
2. Your product range must fit the profile of the store and its customers
Go to appropriate stores and look at how competitor brands are packaged, priced and sold. Identify the products that stand-out and those that disappear into the background. Your products need to stand-out.
3. Demonstrate you have the know-how and investment to make your brand a success
The store is there to showcase your stock and to steer traffic past your counters. Buyers want to see the marketing campaigns you’re planning, the incentives you’ll offer and the sampling you’ll be undertaking.
4. Give the buyer a way out
While they want the confidence that you can make a success of your business, they also like a get out of jail free card. Make sure you’ve worked out your exit policy. This could be helpful towards markdown or it could be a sale or return agreement.
5. Prove that you can meet the order and range size of the store
This, in turn, means that you understand palletisation and that you can fit in with their lead-times. Remember buyers are buying well into a year in advance.
6. Keep your range sensible
Too much product is confusing for buyers and consumers alike.
7. Don’t bring a computer to your meeting
The buyer has to buy into you as well as your brand and computers are impersonal. If you have a presentation, print it out. Buyers like to make notes so they can show it to their higher ups later on. Remember buyers have very little time. Make the most of your time with them. Be slick, sure about your role and well prepared. Offer to email them the presentation or give them a pre-loaded memory stick.
There are always under-performing brands in every store. That means there are always opportunities to gain distribution. To be successful you must know why your chosen partner wants your range, be able to communicate that clearly and have enough time and resource to build your brand in the long-term.
Sue Fabian is general manager for UmbrellaBrand.
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