Lessons Learned: How to Sell to Chain Stores

Hey guys – so this is my 4th installment of my ‘lessons learned’ post.  Previously I talked about mistakes I made in pricing my product, understanding my sales channel, and in understanding my market size.

In case you didn’t notice, I made a lot of mistakes.

Despite all this I have actually managed to sell some Clean Bottles.  How?  Well a big part of it is that I was totally fearless when selling my product.  When I approached big companies like REI and they rejected me it didn’t phase me.  In fact, it motivated me to keep pitching them until they finally gave in.

I think I’ve actually invented a new sales method, I’m calling it the Jack Bauer Sales Strategy.  Basically, torture the buyer with repeated phone calls, emails and visits until they give in and buy your product.

Buy a Clean Bottle and the pain will stop!!

I never took the rejection personally.  I knew I had a great product, and that it would sell once it got into stores.  Its funny, my wife recently told me “honey it is a good thing all those girls in high school and college rejected you when you asked them out.  When you started selling Clean Bottle you were used to rejection so it didn’t phase you.”

Thanks honey.

From ages 10-25 this is what it felt like whenever I asked a girl out.

I make light of this, but getting your product in large stores is a HUGE obstacle to overcome.  But it is something you HAVE to do  if you want any chance of success.  Mom and pop stores are great, and they are absolutely critical to success.  But if you have a one product company, and your average selling price is less than $50, you are going to need to get into the big box retailers to get you the volume you need to pay the bills.  Big box stores are also great because with one account you can service hundreds of stores.  With REI, I get one purchase order for 100 stores.  I send the bottles to one location and they take care of the rest.  And big chain stores like REI just get so many more people through them than your neighborhood bike shop.  More people = more sales.

So how do you get into the big box stores?  Great question.  It is TOUGH AS HELL.  The odds are stacked against you because big companies usually only want to deal with other big companies.

But Clean Bottle is proof that it can be done.

How?  Here is a blue print of how to do it.  This example is from a large bicycling chain store I’ve been working with that is now selling Clean Bottles.

1. Figure out who the buyers are.

Call up the corporate headquarters and ask for the buyer for the category you are selling to.  They may refer you to a generic email address.  That isn’t good enough.  You need a name.  If they don’t give it to you, then call  few of the stores and ask who the buyer is. You will eventually get a name.  Then – find everything about this buyer that you can.  If they are on Twitter start following them and replying to their tweets where appropriate.  If they list their favorite books on Facebook, read them.  If you see through linkedin that they went to University of Texas, then watch every Texas football game.

The goal is to know as much about them as possible so that when you speak with them you can discuss non-work related topics and build a connection.  When a buyer feels a connection toward you it is that much more difficult to turn you down.

Don't stalk the buyer, but do learn everything you can about them so you understand where they are coming from.

2. Build up a sales track record.

I don’t recommend approaching a buyer of a national chain right off the bat.  Buyers want to bring on products that they know they can make money from.  If you pitch a product with no sales history they will say “no” because they have no proof that the product will sell.  Buyers, like anyone, hate to admit when they are wrong.  If they tell you ‘no’ then you will have a much more difficult task to get them to change their mind and essentially admit that they were wrong.

So, get your product in smaller stores and keep track of how well it sells – especially relative to other competitive products – so you can share that data with the buyers.

And remember – take the advice of Vince Vaughn and don’t call too soon.  You will scare the buyer off:

3. Get reviewed by magazines and blogs.

Contact every industry blog and magazine you know of and get them your product.  Follow up constantly.  If you keep at it, in three month’s time you will have reviews in a dozen blogs and may even be slated for a few magazines.  Not only will these reviews generate online sales, but you will now have an impressive press package you can get to the buyers.  You can tell the buyer all you want how great your product is, but if the buyer sees that influential bloggers and journalists like your product, it will carry a lot more weight.

Yes – they will!

4. Cultivate several inside connections at the company.

The buyer is typically VERY hard to get a hold of and is VERY skeptical of new products.  They have to be – they get dozens of new solicitations a day.  They get so many that they virtually ignore all of them and look for other ways to find new products.  One such way is that they solicit feedback from store employees.  With Clean Bottle, I went to several local locations of the bike chain I was targeting.  I gave Clean Bottles to every employee and told them about the company.  These guys were so grateful that someone came in and gave them free product.

Think about it – there is no way Shimano or Giro are coming in and give them stuff.  So when cashiers or mechanics see the owner of a company stopping by to talk with them about a product they are psyched.  I told them the name of the buyer and asked them to contact the buyer if they liked the product.  So this way, the buyer is hearing about Clean Bottle not from me, but from his colleagues.

Store employees – your trojan horse.

5.  Don’t ask for an order, ask for a meeting.

Okay – so you have been hard at work getting your product in blog reviews that hopefully your buyer has been reading.  And you also have store employees telling the buyer about your product.  Now, you contact the buyer and send them a SHORT email.  Tell them about your product’s key features, the pricing, the sales history you’ve had (include comparative sales with competitors) and attach a packet of all the blog and magazine reviews you’ve received.  Use your research on the buyer to highlight anything you have in common with them – same school, same friends, same hobbies.  This will help to break the ice a bit.

This part is key.  Don’t ask them if they’d like to buy the product.  It will be too easy for them to just shoot you a quick reply and say “no”.  Instead, ask if they have a few minutes for you to give them a quick update on the product.

You will likely need to call and email the buyer several times to get a response from them.  I had to call one buyer every hour for 10 days in a row before I got to speak with them.  Make sure to only ask for a meeting.  Then, make sure you are at this meeting in person.  It doesn’t matter if you live in Texas and they are in Seattle.  You need to get in a plane and be there for that meeting.

Meeting the buyer in person shows them you are serious and it also helps to develop a relationship in a way you just can’t over the phone.  The whole goal is to make it as hard as possible for them to say ‘no’.  The more they know you as a person, and not an email address or a voice the harder it is for them to say no.

No phone calls. You need to meet in person.

6.  Make the buyer define his objections.

Okay, so you had your meeting with the buyer.  You showed them your incredible sales history.  You flipped through all the great blog reviews.  You shared a tear over that UT overtime loss in the Rose Bowl.  But after all of this the buyer still said “no”.

Don’t be disappointed.  In fact, be happy.  You met with the buyer and shared your story.  Not many people have made it this far.  And remember, when you are an entrepreneur  - ‘no’ just means ‘not yet’.

But here is what you need to do: get them to list out what their objections to the product are.  This is SO important because if they list out what is wrong, then you can work to change it.  Then, you can bring these changes back to the buyer, or evidence to disprove their criticisms.  Then, the only excuse the buyer will have is that they are too lazy or too scared to add a new SKU – and they can’t admit that.

For example, I had a buyer decline to order Clean Bottle.  When I asked him why he said  that he never had a problem cleaning out his bottles.  Those were the best words I ever heard.  Over the course of the next several months I sent them blog review after blog review and customer letter after customer letter all explaining what a great idea Clean Bottle was because it solved the contstant problem they had with their dirty bottles.  Even better, some of these customer letters said that they went to the bike chain looking for Clean Bottle but couldn’t find it, so they went to another store and bought a Clean Bottle AND a bike.  Losing a $10 sale is one thing – losing a $3,000 sale is another.

Here are some other objections and how you can address them:

  • too expensive – show them sales history and other products that sell well that are at the same price point
  • product doesn’t solve a real problem – show blog reviews and customer testimonials
  • we don’t deal with one SKU companies – I get this all the time.  Show them other one SKU companies that are out there that do well (Red Bull) and that they deal with now (they likely do deal with other one SKU companies).  You can also have them buy through a distributor who carries your product who sells other products to the account.
  • Product is too small / big / light / heavy – again show blog reviews and sales history that show people will buy
  • We are already covered in this category – blog reviews and customer testimonials talking about how this product is unique.

7.  Be patient and be persistent

I contacted this particular cycling chain store almost every week from May until December.  I flew out to meet them and even brought the Bottle Boy costume along so I could hand out bottles to all the employees as they came into work.  I updated them on sales history every two weeks for 7 months – even emailing them from the top of the Tourmalet in the middle of the Tour de France.  I developed relationships with 10 of the store employees, 3 buyers and two regional managers.  I used my facebook network to have my fans write letters to the store asking the buyer to carry the product.  I then presented these letters to the buyer.

I was told “no” by this account probably once a month.  But I kept asking for a reason, and then I gathered evidence to refute their objections.  Finally, they placed an order for their online store and shortly they will be placing an order for their physical stores.

Selling to a chain store sometimes feels like this

Tough?  Absolutely.  But remember, if you are starting a company your chances of succeeding are probably 1 in 10,000.  Seriously.  You NEED to go to these lengths to even have a chance to succeed against companies that are much more well funded, have more products, more employees, more advertising, more brand recognition and more salespeople.

But in the end it is absolutely worth it.  There is no better professional feeling than seeing your product used and loved by people. And to get it in their hands you have to be in the stores they shop at.

The bad news is that, no matter how great you think your product is, the big chain stores are going to do fine whether they stock your product or not.  But this is also good news.  The chain stores are not going to die if they stock your product and it doesn’t work out.  This means that if you are smart about how you approach the buyers and never get up you can get on their shelves.

If you have any questions about this post or want to talk further about your business please email me at dave@cleanbottle.com.

Ride Clean!

  1. Rob Reply
    Wow, what a great set of lessons, thanks so much for this! In my searching, yours is the best FREE resource I've found (found plenty of books and such to buy).
  2. Educator Reply
    Thanks for the awesome info! I am assisting a friend with marketing her new beauty product and this is great advice!
  3. Cathy Reply
    Thanks so much for sharing this info. It was just what I needed to read! I'm trying to get a baby product in a chain store and have found very little useful advice online.
  4. Cesar Reply
    Hi Dave, thank you for sharing this information and the persistency it takes to get products in the large chain stores. I started my company manufacturing dog toys that last more than just a few minutes with the most tenacious of beasts. I am in Mom and Pop stores now and have monthly same store re-orders but definitely need to start branching out to main stream stores. Once again thanks for the great info.
  5. Aaron Alexander Reply
    Great advice. Very considerate to share such valuable information and insight. I would agree that persistence is huge, but I think you also hit on another huge point...Don't be arrogant and prideful and do go the extra distance. I love that you brought the suit to give out samples. You didn't bring out your ego that said you were too good to be in a suit going the extra mile. I think you brought your "Bloods in the Water, and I'm Hungry Attitude" Do the little things..Emailing from France at the top of a famous site to share an update...is powerful and says Damn...This guy is 100% Hustler willing to do what it takes...even while on Vacation. Thank you for your story it was a fun little journey together...oh hey...who's the buyer for REI lol...I'm equally persistant and was hoping you could save me a 100 emails and calls lol Have a great day!
  6. robert sinclair Reply
    Great Advice! I would add to be creative. With so many other people trying to get their attention how are you going to separate yourself from the pack???? emails are nice. But seriously showing up in costume and handing out product to employees is what is going to make the difference.

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