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Navigating wholesale partnerships as a small business

Navigating wholesale partnerships as a small business

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Navigating wholesale partnerships as a small business

Have you ever walked through the aisles of your local grocer or favorite mass retail store and wondered how some of your favorite brands landed on the shelves? As you’ll learn here, it was through those brands carefully building and maintaining strong relationships with retailers. Target Takeoff alumni, Target Accelerators Founder in Residence and Co-Founder Bagelista Warren Wilson shares his tips on how emerging brands can have success and ensure a clear growth trajectory at retail.  

The reality of retail is that buyers are approached by hundreds of brands every day, but in a particular category there may only be a handful of open spots for new products every year. “In order to cut through some of that noise and to gain meaningful retail experience, I suggest approaching smaller, local regional retailers prior to approaching national retailers,” advises Warren. “That way, by the time you land a meeting with a national retailer, you will have an exciting story to tell around your brand and remove some of their risk of working with an unknown brand.”  

There are several different ways to reach buyers. Some of the most notable ways include:  

  • Attend trade shows and conferences: “Be where the buyers are,” says Warren. “There’s no better place to find buyers than industry trade shows, conferences and meetups. In the food and beverage category, Natural Products Expo West is one of the top shows to attend. If you don’t know where to find trade shows pertinent to your category, look in trade publications specific to your category.”  
  • Retailer category reviews: “Some retailers will list open category reviews on their website where you can submit your brand for review to a buyer,” says Warren. (Head’s up: Submit your brand for Target consideration here) 
  • Enlist the help of a broker or a representative group: “There are brokers that will help you navigate product reviews for every category,” Warren says. “These brokers charge for their services, so choose wisely.”  
  • Have a distributor assist in establishing connections: “If you work with a distributor, sometimes they can assist in getting your product in front of the decision makers,” Warren says.  

Once you get the attention of a buyer, you will need to understand the role that your brand will play in the larger ecosystem of the retailer. “You don’t want to blindly pitch the retailer your product,” explains Warren. “You want to give the buyer the context in which your brand is going to work with the other products on the shelves. In some situations, the buyer may even look to you for suggestions and take your lead in terms of flavors, sizes or assortments to put on the shelf because you are the expert on your product and what the customer wants. Be ready to have a thoughtful recommendation for each individual retailer.”  

Say you’ve had a good meeting with a buyer. What comes next? “The first step is getting the thumbs up from the buyer. From getting the award of business to landing on shelves could be six to nine months, which may feel like an eternity to first time brands getting into retail,” says Warren. “However, every week leading up to launch with a retailer needs to be used to work on a plan for a successful launch and being able to supply and replenish the retailer and how you will produce their orders on time and in full.” The breakdown of the process from successful meeting to shelves typically looks like the following:  

  • Award of business: This is the thumbs up from the buyer/retailer that your product can be carried at their stores.  
  • Item set up: This is the fulfillment strategy or supply chain confirmation of how you will produce and fulfill the orders on time to the retailer.  
  • Purchase order: You will get a purchase order a few weeks before launch. Once you have this, you will start the process of fulfillment to the stores.  
  • Reset date: This is the date that your product will launch in store.  

One large component when exploring taking your brand to retail is price point. “Mass retail requires price points that everyday consumers can enjoy. This means that your retail price point and margin may be significantly lower than other channels like DTC,” says Warren. Some things to consider when establishing your price point at retail are:  

  • Promotions: This is an important tool for growing your brand awareness but requires providing some funding that will subsidize that retail price. Brands should know ahead of time what that discount offer will be and how many weeks out of the year that they can afford to run the promotion.  
  • Damages/returns/lost inventory: These costs typically get charged to the vendor, so the brand will need to estimate this into their cost so that there are no surprises.  
  • Shelf life: If you sell food or a perishable item, your product will have an expiration date, so you will need to understand the timeline that your product will have from distribution to shelves in order to allow the customer to purchase and enjoy your product. “If your product has a shelf life, you are now also running a logistics company and you need to have confidence before launch that you know the timeline of moving product from your factory to the shelves in order to maximize shelf life,” says Warren.
  • Marketing budget: “Velocity or units sold on the shelf just doesn’t happen after appearing at a retailer. You have to nurture and invest in marketing to get that awareness for your brand.”  

Transparency and reliability are important in fostering trust with retailers, ensuring timely delivery, consistent quality and responsiveness to feedback. Additionally, understanding the retailer’s needs and offering tailored solutions can strengthen the partnership and lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. “If your item is out of stock, then you’re not generating any sales,” explains Warren. “There is no waitlist or backorder in retail like you can have in DTC, so if your item is not on the shelf, the customer will pick up your competitor’s product or they will lose trust in the retailer and shop somewhere else- both bad places to be. Opportunities will always arise when you are in stock, so shipping on time and in full (OTIF) is the most important thing you can do once you’re in retail.”  

While the road to retail can be long and can take quite a bit of planning, the benefits of creating a strong pathway to your customer with a trusted retail partner are priceless. “Ultimately, as an entrepreneur, there is no greater satisfaction than seeing the products that you created being enjoyed by other people. There is truly no better method to distribute your products into the marketplace than at retail. A good relationship with a great retailer is the most powerful way to accomplish the goal of getting your product into customers’ hands. It’s a beautiful thing,” beams Warren.  

Now that you have the tools for getting into retail, start your journey to get your product onto shelves, and check out Bagelista at a freezer near you. 

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