If you are successfully selling your products primarily online, now is a good time to consider expanding to retail stores. According to the National Retail Federation, brick-and-mortar stores “remain the primary point of purchase for consumers, accounting for approximately 70% of total retail sales.”
The benefits of selling your products in retail stores can include increased visibility.
“Most brands tend to encounter a ceiling with regards to reach and exposure from online sales alone,” says John Kennelly, founder of F3 Collective, a market strategy consultancy that helps small businesses bring new products to market. “This ceiling is especially an issue for products of a tactile nature. Many consumers feel the need to touch and feel a product before making a purchase.”
Repeat sales are also more likely at brick-and-mortar locations, according to Danielle Monogue, owner and CEO of DZM Retail Consulting. A former merchandising director for large retailers, including JCPenney and Family Dollar, Monogue now consults with small retailers on improving profitability. “Typically, most brick-and-mortar locations have more loyal customers than the online space,” she says.
Perhaps most importantly for small business – selling to retail can improve cash flow thanks to minimum order quantities (MOQs), notes Cynthia Wylie, CEO and owner of Bloomers Edutainment. Prior to her current company, she manufactured toys, clothing, and garden products and sold them to retail for 30 years.
The following small-business owners have had success with getting products into retail stores and share their secrets for doing so.
1. Develop a retail planning pitch.
Consider access to national retail chains by trying to develop a retail planning pitch. Develop a pitch package that includes a cover letter, press kit, and product samples.
“Retailers are approached by thousands of brands each month, so the key to perfecting your pitch is sharing what you think your product can add to their store that your competition can't,” says Kennelly. When developing your retail planning pitch, he suggests asking yourself the following questions.
- Have your sales been off the charts? If so, consider putting that information front and center.
- Do you have a massive, rabid social media following? Try telling the retailer you're going to encourage that following to visit their stores in droves.
- Does your product have an amazing demo that will bring eyeballs and foot traffic to their stores? Consider recording a great demo video or find a way to demo your product in person.
2. Get a pitch strategy.
When it comes to pitching strategy, Andy LaPointe, founder of the gourmet food company Traverse Bay Farms, whose products are distributed in specialty retailers and grocery stores in 42 states, stresses that retailers are concerned with two priorities when considering if they’ll carry your product.
“Buyers will ask themselves, does this product fill a need my customers are looking for at a competitive price and profit margin, and can this company continue to supply my stores without disruptions or delays?” says LaPointe.
Consider addressing both of those questions clearly and confidently with the retailer, and you will have a good chance of getting your product positioned in their stores.
3. Know their needs.
Knowing what retailers need can allow you to see if your product is right for them.
“We’ve been in the food business since 2001 and always research the needs of potential retailers before pitching to them,” says LaPointe, who with his team visits the retail establishments they intend to pitch.
“Visiting allows us firsthand knowledge of the store's audience, product range, and current brands carried,” he says. “We spend time in the aisle that contains competing products and look for gaps that we can fill.”
Doing your research about a company’s needs can help you pitch the right product, adds Joseph Schlossberg, vice-president of global sales at Sourcing Solutions International, which manufactures hangers and packaging for the apparel and retail industries.
“For example, our hanger products range from plastic hangers made from virgin or recycled material, paper hangers, and hangers made from paper and recycled plastic,” says Schlossberg. “Knowing the retailer’s preferences allows us to suggest the best product.”
4. Brand yourself.
Brand positioning is necessary to land on retail shelves. It’s your job to try to prove to retailers that customers will prefer your brand over others.
"Strong branding sets your product apart," says Kate Adams, founder of the apparel company Linions.com. "Invest in visually appealing packaging and ensure your brand message resonates with the retailer's audience. A cohesive, recognizable brand image is a powerful asset."
Try to pay particular attention to packaging, suggests Kennelly. “Retailers want something that is eye-catching while also being compact and easy to place on a shelf or in a warehouse,” he says. “Packaging is easy to overlook but can be the kiss of death for a consumer-facing brand if not done well.”
5. Sell at independents.
Before you target large retailers, consider reaching out to independents where you can get your retail feet wet. “Independent retailers are often more open to new products and can serve as stepping stones to larger retail chains,” says Sandi Olson, founder of LockandLoadBoutique, which specializes in unique and handcrafted products.
"Smaller, independent retailers often provide a more personalized shopping experience," says Adams. "To gain their consideration, approach with a genuine interest in their business and demonstrate how your products can enhance their offerings."
Adds LaPointe: “We’ve found that independents want solutions and not just products. While we offer a complete array of support to all our retail partners, it is the independents that usually use our product training, recipe cards, and in-store demos to a greater degree.”
6. Reach out to the gatekeepers.
Networking is the fastest path into the tightknit, highly competitive retail market. Here are some ideas to help reach gatekeepers.
- Try to use social platforms such as LinkedIn to discover how your contacts might help you obtain access to retail decisionmakers.
- Consider attending trade shows to connect with the right people.
- Sales reps can also be helpful, as well as an inside salesperson, if that fits your budget.
- Try to list your products on online wholesale marketplaces where distributors go to look for new products.
7. Slow and steady wins the race.
Rushing into retail sales is not advised. It’s important that you’re ready for scaling and can meet wholesale demand. Try to start off growing your business and building your brand. Then try to get into local stores before going national. This can help ensure that your company is ready for the demands of national stores, including fulfilling wholesale requests with ease.
“The journey of placing products in retail stores is an ongoing endeavor,” says Adams. “In the ever-evolving world of retail, adaptability and a strategic approach are key.”
8. Does my product need to be in retail stores?
Selling your products retail is an ideal way to grow your business. When deciding if retail is right for your company, consider the following benefits of having merchandise in retail stores.
- Increased exposure for your brand
- More credibility and trust in your product
- Direct customer interaction
- Diversified revenue streams
- More sales
- Increased cash flow
- Business growth
- Savings on shipping, marketing, and operating costs
- Convenience and ease (The retailer does the selling and merchandising for you.)
9. Prove yourself.
If you’re a new brand, it can be difficult to get onto retail shelves initially. Benjamin Dai, CEO and owner of the e-Bike helmet company Xnito, advises doing what his company did when starting out. They used internet and direct marketing platforms such as Google, Meta, and social media outlets to develop branding and gain wider recognition among consumers and prospective retailers.
“The first year, we accumulated staggering amounts of positive reviews from independent [influencers] and gained widespread recognition and praise,” says Dai. “After year one, when our product was one of the top 10 sellers on Amazon in the ebike helmet category, we were ready to launch into the traditional retail network.”
10. Eat and sleep with procurement.
“Most retailers, especially the national ones, have a procurement/ buying department,” says Devesh Dwivedi, owner of breakingthe9to5jail.com. “These are the people who decide what to buy, from whom, and at what price. Generally, the individual stores have very little say in such decisions, so your best bet is to eat, sleep, and be best friends with the procurement folks at the retailers.”
11. Conduct interviews.
Understanding the retail sales process is important. To find out what it would be like to work with a retailer, consider scheduling non-sales informational interviews with key decision makers. Try to offer to take them to lunch or invite them to an industry-related event. Consider preparing three to seven questions and inquire about the process from a purely informational place. Then you can be positioned to approach them with a well-thought-out plan.
Once you gain interest from a retailer, try to make sure to check them out before proceeding, suggests Jonathan Berenson, owner of Two Tails Pet Company, which carries pet accessories. “Ask the retailer for referrals to other suppliers who can vouch for their reputation. Also ensure that the store does a good job of selling products. Visit the store and ask customers why they prefer to shop there.”
12. Try, try again.
While every industry and product are different, there is one constant. Those small-business owners who persist can have better odds of success. The road to retail sales may be a long one, and your first attempts may fail. The only way to succeed is to learn from your mistakes and try again.
13. Try to guarantee success.
If you tell retail stores that you guarantee sales and create a no-risk arrangement for them, you can be more likely to get a chance.
“Offering a money-back guarantee is one excellent way to get into a retail store,” says Justin Soleimani, co-founder of Tumble, a homeware rug company. “A money-back guarantee offers retail store owners peace of mind and reassurance not to fear the unknown.”
Alejandro Velez, co-founder and co-CEO of the garden products company Back to the Roots, suggests offering to demo your product in the store until it sells out. “Start with one store, sell out, then go to the next store," he says. "It's important to build buzz and confidence with retailers so they invest in you by pushing the product themselves into the other stores.”
14. Find the right distributor.
Distributors are middlemen who can help you penetrate a retail market. “If you're looking to expand quickly, partnering with a distributor can be a game-changer,” says Olson. “They have existing relationships with retailers and can help you get your foot in the door.”
Try to ensure that the distributor checks all the boxes for your business, adds LaPointe. “We look for the following in an ideal distributor: territory coverage, specialization, and the ability to pay on agreed upon terms.”
15. Creating comfortable relationships.
“Build and nurture the relationships with retailers, and watch the magic happen,” says Barbara Stern, editor-in-chief at Ottoman Textiles, a wholesale bedding and home textiles supplier. “Whether it’s a quaint little retail shop or the vast world of e-commerce, remember it's all about the connection – with your product, your story, and your customers.”
Wendy Wang, owner of the outdoor furniture cover company F&J Outdooors, agrees. “Maintaining good relationships with retailers is paramount. Visit the stores regularly to understand customer behavior, preferences, and how your product is performing on the shelves.”
16. Big margins, quick turnover, small footprint.
Successful retail products can have the highest margins, fastest turnover, and smallest footprint for the retailer. That means the store can make a lot of money selling your product often in a small area of their store. Try to ensure your product fits this criteria before pitching it.
At the same time, you want sales of your product to retail stores to make your company money. "Maintaining healthy margins is crucial for sustainability," says Adams. "A clear understanding of production costs, retail markup, and profitability ensures you can scale your business while staying financially viable,” she says.
“You will usually need to make at least a 50% gross profit margin to cover your fixed costs,” says Wylie. “That equates to a 100% markup. If a product costs $10 to make, you want to sell it for $20 to your retailer. That will give you a $10 gross profit, or 50%. The retailer usually takes a 100% to 120% markup. In this example, that will make your product cost $40 to $44 for the consumer. If it’s not worth that price, the retailer won't buy it.”
17. Create a video about your product.
A video about your product can serve as an advertisement that you can share with all potential retailers. The video doesn’t have to be complex. Just try to ensure that the advertorial gets the point across about the value of your product. Consider featuring satisfied customers in the video describing what they like about your company and products. Videos can be published on a variety of platforms, including YouTube, Instagram (Reels), and TikTok.
18. Be unique and different.
Successful retailers can have plenty of products on their shelves. To be noticed, you should try to ensure that your product is unique and different. Try to make it something that fills a need in the marketplace while getting attention.
19. Don't be afraid to reach out and sell yourself.
“Don’t be shy about reaching out to the appropriate point of contact for a retail establishment and pursuing them,” says marketing expert Lauren Maillian. “Call their office, e-mail them, find out when they are reviewing new vendors, what they look for in products, and their placement. Also check into any special programs that they may have throughout the year that are applicable to you whereby they highlight new companies, even if just on a trial basis.”
Business Is Strategy
Making the move to selling your product in retail stores can help you develop your business and scale. Preparing your product appropriately, doing the marketing and research, and creating a perfect pitch can help you convince retailers to give your company a chance.
A version of this article was originally published on June 03, 2011.
Photo: Getty Images