One Startup. No Secrets. Start at the beginning.
Over the last 6 months, I’ve learned an incredible amount about selling a food product to retailers. So much so that I thought it would be valuable to share some of these learnings with other small makers that have big goals. Building a thriving wholesale business is tough work, but I’ve pulled apart the key things I wish I had known from the start.
Depending on the type of product you sell, there are potentially thousands of retailers that could successfully sell your product, from local mom & pop shops around the corner to national behemoths like Whole Foods that can be found in every major city.
In this post, I’m going to focus on how I find the right retailers to carry our products and how I connect with decision makers at these stores. In a future post, I’ll outline exactly how I sell to retailers once they are interested in learning more about our honey.
[Note: For the purpose of this post, I’ll be focusing on selling to smaller retailers. Contacting and selling to larger players like Whole Foods is a whole other story for a whole other post.]
How to Identify Key Retailers
Identifying which retailers will sell your product is the first step in building a wholesale business. It can be overwhelming, but the key to success at this phase is paring your target list of retailers down to a manageable number. As a small business, its unreasonable to try and sell to 10,000 retailers right out of the gate.
With that in mind, you’ll want to cherry pick the retailers you think are most likely to carry--and successfully sell--your product. The better you get at finding the perfect retailers for your products, the more quickly your wholesale business will grow.
Here are a methods I employ to identify top-quality retailers:
1) Study your customers: Map out the type of person that is your typical customer (I call these “core customers”). Knowing who typically buys your products will guide you to the type of retailer that caters to those people.
At MixedMade, we know that our core customer loves unique food items, experiments in the kitchen, and pays attention to high-quality and local ingredients. This information helps me identify exactly which stores are likely to have customers with those characteristics.
2) Study your current retail partners: If you’re already working with a handful of retailers, see if you can spot some trends between them. Don’t hesitate to build simple profiles for each retailer that identify the types of products they sell, their geographic regions, and the type of customers they attract.
Early last quarter, I started to notice that we were attracting a variety of cheese shops around the country. After reviewing it more thoroughly, I saw that about 40% of our inbound retail leads were shops with cheese sections. As a result of this finding, I started identifying and contacting the top 10-15 cheese shops in each of the largest cities in the U.S. Cheese shops are now some of our best-selling retail partners.
3) Google(!): The internet loves making lists (thanks, BuzzFeed), so you can almost always find a list of the best shops in certain categories. As I mentioned above, for almost every major city, I’ve been able to find a list of the top 10 cheese shops. If you sell artisanal chocolate, you can be certain that most specialty grocers, wine shops, and cheese shops will likely be a good target. Start building lists of the top 5 to 10 shops in each of those categories by city.
4) Network: As a maker, you likely have a growing network of people who also make similar products. We receive invaluable insights from other makers who are already working with certain retailer they think would love our product. Just last week I spoke with our friend Jimmy at The Truffleist and he was able to give me contact information for 10 great potential retailers in exchange for introductions to some of our best retailers.
By using those 4 tactics, you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll have a couple hundred retailers to contact.
How to Contact Key Retailers
After you’ve identified your target retailers, now it’s time to contact them so that you can pitch your product. Although this is often the most challenging step for any first time maker, I can almost guarantee you’ll be getting a high percentage of responses if you follow this methodology. The process I go through for each potential retailer is:
- Find a phone number and email address for the retailer
- Send an introductory email
- If no response, send follow up email
- If no response, make a follow up call
We get an incredible number of conversations started with retailers following that simple formula. Now let’s look at each in a little more detail:
1) Find Phone Number & Email
Find an email address and phone number for the shop. Don’t worry if the email address is generic like "firstname.lastname@example.org” or “email@example.com”. I’ll explain why in a minute.
People will often times tell you to start with a phone call. In my experience, this method does not work.
I’ve actually found cold-calling to be the least effective way to connect with someone that has the power to purchase your product. This is due to the fact a call to their general business number will often connect you with a cashier or associate who typically has no influence or involvement in product buying decisions.
Instead, focus on introducing yourself and the product in a simple email that I’ll outline below. The reason I love sending emails to generic “info” addresses like the ones I mentioned above is because they are typically managed by the owner of the shop. If your product piques their interest, they will quickly and happily respond for more information or to set up a call.
2) Introductory Email
Below you’ll find the exact email I send out to retail prospects.
Is it perfect? Of course not, but it gets the job done.
Believe it or not, this email, combined with the follow up you’ll see in the next section, gets a response over 50% of the time. In other words, if I sent out these two emails to 100 prospective retailers, over 50 of them will respond to them. This is an unheard of conversion rate in the industries I've previously worked in.
As you can see in the email below, I personalize it the best I can. This shows the recipient that you’re not just blast an email to thousands of people, but that you’ve taken the time to send them this specific email.
Some strategies I’m using here:
- In the very first paragraph, I link to our product page so the buyer can immediately see if this is a product they could envision on their shelves
- I call out a couple items that they carry that would pair well with our honey
- I describe our honey in a way that helps them understand the product (and gets their mouth watering)
- I make a very specific request. In this case, asking to talk with the buyer
- Typically I send introductory emails on Tuesday around 10:00am as this is often the day and time when people seem least busy.
- If you use Gmail, enable “Canned Responses” in the Labs section of your email settings. This will allow you to automatically populate any text of your choosing quickly and easily. Don’t waste time copy and pasting from other emails or text files.
- There’s no magic formula or silver bullet to sending cold emails. My suggestion is to always test a couple different strategies and choose the ones that are working. Compounded over time this will lead to high converting emails.
3) Follow Up Email
I like to keep my follow up emails short and sweet. Below you’ll find the exact follow up email I send to retailers. There is nothing fancy here, just a reminder that I’d like to speak with a buyer.
As I mentioned above, I get a great response rate from my introductory and follow up emails, so at this point I’m not concerned with over-thinking this aspect of my outreach.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right?
4) Follow Up Call
If you’re struggling to get a response to your email, now is the time to call and try to find a buyer. I use a basic script:
Hi, my name is Ted. I emailed earlier this week to see if [Store Name] would be interested in carrying my spicy honey. Could you connect me with the buyer on your team?
If connected to a buyer or the owner, be respectful of their time and ask if they would prefer to schedule a later time to talk before you dive right in. Remember, small business owners are very busy. Trying to sell them when they have 9 other things on their mind is a recipe for a swift rejection.
Summary & Key Takeaways
As I mentioned earlier, finding and connecting with retailers isn’t easy, but it’s also not rocket science. What works for me might not work for you, but it’s a great starting point.
- Target the right retailers: Maximize your effort by targeting the right retailers. This will help you close business faster, increase your selling confidence and grow your wholesale channel quickly.
- Start with email, follow up with phone calls: Many of our best retailer partners have come from cold emails sent to generic email addresses. Start there because you’ll be surprised how often you’ll receive a response from the right contact. (Just want until I tell you the story about Murray’s Cheese.)
- Trust the process: I can’t stress this one enough. Sales can be hard and frustrating. But if you put together a solid plan and stay hungry you’ll start to succeed. Like anything in business, the goal is to continually improve and build on your process and strategy.
If you have any tips or tricks you’d like to share with us, leave a comment below! In a couple weeks, I’ll uncover strategies that help us close deals with retailers.
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Haven't tried our Bees Knees Spicy Honey Yet? Go ahead, order a bottle or two. We're so confident you'll love it that we'll give your money back if you're unhappy for any reason.