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Taking Your Product to Market: What Does it Take to Get on the Shelf?

Getting your product on the shelf can be a long and complicated process. From knowing when you’re ready to finally making it in front of a buyer, there are things you can do to help ensure your success.

We recently spoke with Redwood Ventures founder and CEO Andy Wiseman who shared some of the expertise he’s gained over the years working with buyers in the retail market. Below are some of his tips and advice for startups looking for their place on the shelf.

Knowing You’re Ready (for the Shelf)

One of the biggest hurdles creators face is knowing when they’re ready. Is the product ready for market? Is the market ready for the product? And finally, is the team ready to deliver?

Wiseman believes you can never be completely ready. “One of the indications of being ready is to admit you can never be completely ready and being willing to accept feedback and direction along the way, from partners, from the factory, from buyers, and change is an important part of being nimble, which is in itself a sense of readiness.”

It’s important to do your homework before you set up a meeting. Most of the information you need to determine the market and its needs is available online. According to Wiseman you must be ready to talk about your product’s MBOS:

  • Meaningful — Is it going to meet a meaningful consumer need?
  • Believable — Are the claims about the product believable?
  • Ownable — Can it be uniquely owned?
  • Sustainable — Can the product lifestyle last, is it sustainable over time?

It’s important to know that your product is manufacturable and what timelines and costs are associated with production. Once you’ve chosen a manufacturer, visit the factory, meet them, be transparent – sell your factory on meeting your needs.

Another important aspect is to understand how much operating capital you will need before you begin to see income. It may take a while to get funds and you are still going to have bills to pay. Make sure you have to capital lined up to get you through.

Finally, be willing to admit that as an entrepreneur you don’t have all the skills you need. Surround yourself with people who bring different skill sets and have the ones you don’t.

Determining the Best Channels and Chains

The next step is deciding which channel to approach with your product. Survey the retail landscape and understand which channel will benefit most from your product. When looking for a chain within those channels start with the biggest first because the lessons you learn from that retail sector will be invaluable.

It’s also important to understand the difference between retailers in a particular segment. Demographics can play a part in which chain you decide to approach. A good sales rep group can help you determine the best fit for your product.

You can also get to know retailers by surveying the shelf and talking to someone who has successfully sold that retailer or a sales representative who understands that business. The more you know about a retailer–their likes, their dislikes, their customer–the more successful you will be.

There are key differences in retailers’ approachability. Some welcome innovation and have a more entrepreneurial spirit, while others require significant success outside of the mass market first. Some companies will often pass on a new product the first year. However, the opportunity to present the product will provide valuable feedback so you can come back with a much better chance at success.

Another great way to determine the best channel is to set up a booth at a trade show. It gives you the opportunity to meet sales partners and retailers and you’ll begin to get an idea where to focus and how to take those steps.

How to Get the Right Meeting

Once you’ve determined your channel and chain you need to be sure you’re getting the right meeting with the right person. Approaching the buyer with a simple presentation, understanding what they tell you about the fit in their category, then being willing to change course and pursue another category if necessary is important when pitching your product.

Timing is everything as you present with retailers. Understanding a buyer’s key dates is critical, and sometimes missing a buyer’s line review window by one day can add a full year to your launch.

Identify the seasonal time lines based on what you see in the marketplace. If you aren’t sure when a category launches keep your eyes open at the retailer. Watch the shelves, watch for promotional activity and reset activity. These things are good clues as to when new products get introduced. Typically presentations for new product categories happen as far as 12 months in advance, so get prepared for next year now.

You’ll also want to network with non-competitors in the same category. These people can help you keep your ear to the ground and gain insights into category timing prior to your pitch.

Before You Pitch

Before requesting the meeting be sure you understand how to position your product in the marketplace. Define it with the MBOS formula. Once you can do that you will be able to explain why you are asking for the meeting and what unique consumer need can be met by the buyer carrying your product.

You might be put on the spot to give additional details on the phone. If given that 30-40 second opportunity, be prepared to speak specifically about your product – but don’t spill all the beans at once. Just sell it well enough to give the buyer a curiosity for what will be unveiled later.

You should always be able to answer the following questions:

  • Who else carries your product?
  • Where else is your product listed?
  • Are you a vendor of record–do you have a target vendor number? (If you don’t they may see you anyway but that’s an important thing to understand first.)

It’s important to have an understanding of the retail positioning of your item, but this probably won’t be important when you initially talk to the buyer on the phone. However, when you go into the meeting, know your price, know your profit, know what you can and can’t say no to because pricing conversations can happen in that first meeting.

Retailers will ask you to provide a power point with images of your product before you meet with them. Put together something simple, compelling, and organized. Generally you’ll want to provide three to four slides that leave the buyer wanting to know more.

Making the Pitch

Because getting an appointment is tough, make sure your samples are perfect. Prototypes can get damaged in transit, so make sure your product is in working order. Bring more than one if possible. Buyers may want to keep a sample so be sure to have one you can give them if they ask.

The meeting will vary from customer to customer. Schedules may get disrupted and you may not have any set up time. Know your product well enough that you can begin your presentation as you’re setting up. The time you have may be limited so be prepared to scale your presentation down if necessary.

Different retailers also have different meeting demographics. You may be meeting with a group or a committee or an individual. Get to know the participants by letting them talk about themselves. Use a conversational tone and ask questions to uncover their goals for the category. Don’t get so hung up on your presentation that you forget to ask questions.

It’s important to always be prepared for surprises. Know your competition’s product and be prepared for challenges that you don’t expect–price, safety, anything.

Determine ahead of time what you can and can’t do. Role play with your team and understand the difficult questions, challenges, and opportunities that may arise. Prepare for the unexpected and then know where your boundaries are. In some areas you may be able to give a little or even a lot, but in some areas you won’t be able to give at all. Understand what those boundaries are before you go into a meeting.

It’s very important not to make a commitment you can’t fulfill. If you are unsure you can live up to a commitment tell them you need some time to provide a firm answer. Buyer will respect your honesty. Then go back and do your homework and make sure you can provide what they’ve asked for.

When preparing your presentation make it brief and easy to look at. Discuss your presentation, don’t read it from the slides. Pictures, infographics, or video are much more effective than tables and charts. Start with a lengthy presentation then cut it until it works.

Your presentation should tell a two part story:

  1. The reason for being
  2. The product itself

Present the reason for being first, then present the product as the solution.

The most important thing to remember when pitching your product is your true objective. Entrepreneurs often feel they have get a yes at that first meeting, but many times that doesn’t happen. After you convey your product’s applicability to the category and you get the buyer to agree, get clear action steps and specific dates for what will happen next.

When and How to Follow Up

The best way to determine follow up is to ask questions. Find out exactly what needs to be accomplished and when it needs to be done. Be sure to write it down or have someone with you to take notes. These dates are critical and you don’t want to forget them.

As you wrap up the presentation ask how soon you should follow up and when you can expect an answer. Ask questions that will help you understand the buyer’s cadence and always keep your feedback short, concise, and actionable, with a subject line that stands out and makes them want to open it.

When the Buyer Says “No”

Learning to manage a no is an important part of the process. Look for feedback. Ask the buyer what factors determined the decision. Are your prices too high? Do they have something else that’s just a better fit for this demographic? Look at no as an opportunity to learn more and improve your product line.

Remember, just because one buyer said no that doesn’t mean others won’t be interested. You can sell on Amazon or to build a story that shows how your product meets the needs you claim it does. According to Wiseman, missing an opportunity in season one can be a blessing and give you the chance mature and refine your product, as well as learn valuable lessons along the way.

When the Buyer Says “Yes”

A yes can come in many different forms. It may be a full on yes, or it may be a partial yes. Either way, it’s important to follow up appropriately and understand when buyers makes their commitments. A good network of people in the category can help you understand when decisions have or have not been made.

One of the most important things to understand once you get a yes is that retailers have a “have to arrive by date” and you have to be able to meet that must arrive by date. If at any time you uncover a problem or realize you can’t hit a date, always be sure you have a solution before you go to your buyer. That’s an important part of keeping the promises you make to buyers–and doing it right, even when you’ve made a mistake. It’s a great way to build integrity.

Growing Your Business

Getting the first yes is exciting and you are going to want to turn that into more yesses for the future. But before you do, it’s important to make sure you manage the business you have now. You’ll never get beyond that first yes if you don’t manage your current program well.

Make sure you understand your buyer’s expectations for weekly sales and their forecast. Are you meeting those numbers? If not, what can you do to meet them? If you are exceeding them, how quickly can you produce additional product?

You’ve been given that shelf space for a season: manage that shelf space and do it well. Over time, it will turn into more shelf space, and you can move on to introducing your next product and program with confidence and a greater understanding of what it takes to get–and stay–on a retailer’s shelf.