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Williams-Sonoma: 534 Days, But Who’s Counting...

Bees Knees Meyer Lemon Honey, just hit the shelves of Williams-Sonoma stores around the country and online.

But the journey from “Wouldn’t it be cool if Williams-Sonoma carried our stuff?” to “Williams-Sonoma carries our stuff!” was longer and pricklier than you might expect. Here’s how we did it and what we learned along the way.

Round 1: Taking our First Shot

On October 14, 2014, I received this email from a friend:

“TED! Your timing is EPIC! They have a meeting with their president this afternoon to present honey concepts. Is there any Bees Knees Spicy Honey in the Bay Area that you could have expressed over to the Williams-Sonoma office today for her meeting? The buyer's information is below. I'm going to put you two in touch via email now.”

She worked in marketing for Pottery Barn, a subsidiary of Williams-Sonoma and I had reached out on a lark to see if she knew a buyer I could talk to about Bees Knees Spicy Honey (way back when that was our only product). It turned out that not only did she know the right buyer, but that this buyer was just hours away from meeting with her team to discuss honey concepts for 2015. Talk about serendipitous timing!

I live just outside of San Francisco and my wife works in the city, so I immediately called her and begged her to drop everything, buy some bottles of Bees Knees from a local shop, hop in a cab, and hand deliver to Williams-Sonoma’s headquarters. (And the award for Best Wife in the World goes to…)

At this point I was riding pretty high. I had just joined Bushwick Kitchen, and this was going to be my first opportunity to impress them with my magical sales skills. And why shouldn’t I have been confident? After all, people around the globe love our honey so it would only be natural that Williams-Sonoma would too, right?

Not quite. A week later, I received this response from the buyer:

“Thank you again for sending the honey. We presented it to the Executive team last Thursday where we all tasted it together. Unfortunately, the honey was just too spicy for what we want to offer our customer base. The packaging however, is incredible and we all wanted to love it because the look was so great, but definitely too hot for the majority of us.

One call out was if you guys have a honey that is not spicy and so when/if the time comes that you develop another honey, we would love to take a look at it and consider it for an addition to our assortment.”

I’d be lying if I said we all weren’t dejected by their decision. But in sales, you need a very short-memory and a tough skin. So I quickly started looking at the positives:

  1. They loved our packaging
  2. The would be willing to taste other creations

I needed to keep my head up, play the long game, and continue chasing down this opportunity.

(In retrospect, we would have been in big trouble if they had loved it and placed an order: Just a few weeks after Williams-Sonoma’s decision, the Today Show featured Bees Knees Spicy Honey on air and we were racing the clock to get 9,500 bottles out the door in time for Christmas.)

Round 2: Switching up our Strategy

The good news is that we had a dialogue with the buyers and they threw us the opportunity to create something that would strike a chord with them and their customers.

Fast-forward to Spring 2015 and Bushwick Kitchen was a completely different company. I had joined full time, we had moved into a permanent kitchen space, and we had our second and third products looming on the horizon. In other words, we were in a much better position to pitch Williams-Sonoma.

Selling to a company as large as Williams-Sonoma requires the right balance of tenacity, tact, and patience. I kept in frequent contact with the buyers to keep them apprised of our progress and our product plans. This strategy paid off when Williams-Sonoma rolled out a new concept store in Ponce, Georgia and proactively reached out to us to include our product in the grand opening. This store was going to be more food-focused so they had the opportunity to take chances on brands and flavors that might be outside of their typical product mix. So within a matter of days, Bees Knees Spicy Honey and Trees Knees Spicy Syrup were being carried in their Ponce location.

After a few weeks of selling, we received this update:

“Currently, the honey and the syrup are our top 20 and 23 SKUs out of a 200+ assortment!”

It was only one location and one data point, but it gave us a foothold to work our way into their main stores and was a huge confidence booster.

Round 3: Pick a Flavor, any Flavor

A couple months after our products hit the shelf in Ponce, I was able to schedule a face-to-face with the buyers at their offices in San Francisco. We wanted to talk about a wide-variety of ideas we had and the timing felt right to push hard for inclusion in their stores nationally.

This meeting was held on October 27, 2015, over a year after that first scramble to get a sample to their offices. By this point I had floated some product ideas to them that Casey had tinkered in the kitchen. We received great feedback on the concepts and sent them samples of a few varieties, including Bees Knees Meyer Lemon Honey. It was a hit and we inched a little closer to our goal.

Round 4: Sealing the Deal

Even though we agreed on a particular flavor, it was now time to finalize an actual deal. Because they were going to be ordering bottles in the thousands, we knew that we would need to offer a fairly substantial break on our normal wholesale price. We weren’t, however, prepared for their margin goals, and what it would mean for our own margins.

In general, high-end retailers like Williams-Sonoma are trying to achieve 50-70% gross margins, which makes for very challenging economics on our end to land on a reasonable shelf price. Despite the very small per-bottle profit, we felt confident that working with Williams-Sonoma would pay off in the long run through:

Brand Awareness: Millions of people filter through the 300+ Williams-Sonoma stores scattered about the country each year. Many of those people have never heard of Bushwick Kitchen. That kind of foot traffic is invaluable for introducing your brand to people.

Additional Retailers: There is no doubt in my mind that landing a product in Williams-Sonoma can help bring other retailers to us. I don’t have any data to support this yet but will be tracking it closely and hopefully will have an update in the next couple quarters.

Product Validation: Just by having a product carried at Williams-Sonoma is a huge vote of confidence. However, this is our first product getting national distribution in a retailer as ubiquitous as Williams-Sonoma. It will be a huge test to see how our flavors and branding are received by a more mass-market consumer.

Cumulative Revenue: Although the per-bottle profit isn’t particularly high, this is still an opportunity to move a few thousand bottles into new kitchens. And even if only 25% of those customers buy another Bushwick Kitchen product, it will have been worth the thin margin on the initial bottles.

So that brings us to today. Roughly 534 days after we first started talking with Williams-Sonoma, they now carry a Bushwick Kitchen product. It’s a pretty cool milestone, but as always, the grind continues.

Leave a comment if you’re curious about any other aspects of this deal.


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