Notes from the other side of the desk…

Part 2: Now you’ve got my attention, what are you going to do with it?
I have had the pleasure of being a Retail Food Buyer for two years in the Convenience sector in the UK. As a result of the global financial downturn I noticed a dramatic difference in the size of businesses that were coming to see me; the big boys got bigger, the small got smaller and more niche and the middle got squeezed out. This meant that I had the pleasure of meeting with and, in some cases, working with some very young businesses and I really felt like part of their journey. I must admit some of them did a great job, others…not so much! So I thought I’d pull together a short series of blogs based on my experience and, if you’re a young business wanting to crack mainstream retail, I hope this might be a useful read.
This next section focuses in on what to do once you’ve got that coveted appointment. I asserted in my last post that getting the appointment is one of the hardest aspects of the sell, and it is, so now you have the opportunity to get in front of a decision maker make the most of it. Let your passion and enthusiasm for your business and products sell.
The best advice I can give anyone entering any sales pitch at any level is – prepare! Nobody can walk into a meeting without preparing and expect the best potential result, I don’t care who you are or how experienced you are if you fail to prepare…etc! The most vital element of your preparation is working to understand the customer you’re going to see. Do whatever you need to do to get to know more about how they operate, who their customers are, what their category currently looks like and what you believe you’ll add to their category. Remember any buyer is incredibly busy and the easiest response for them to give is ‘no’ because that involves no additional work. Listing your products involves a lot of work for them; in paperwork, selling into the business and the risk involved in taking a punt. A mis-directed pitch can be very frustrating. I recall one start-up business coming to see me with a fantastic Coconut Oil brand, really high quality stuff. The sales person knew the product and the process inside out, but when it came to the commercials he was way off the mark. His product would have been the most expensive on my fixture by at least £5 and there’s just no way it would sell. When I asked who else he’d presented to he said I was the first and only meeting he had. Unfortunately this type of product wouldn’t have appealed to my customers and wouldn’t have worked. Knowing the market well, I recommended some target accounts for him where the retailers could charge the prices he was asking for; and off he went!
So now you know a bit more about who you’re going to see what do you say when you get there? In terms of your pitch I’d say just keep it simple. Make sure you know your products, the competition and your plans well. Let your food do the talking. It speaks volumes when a sales person has that much confidence in their product that they are happy let it sell itself. The most impressive pitch I witnessed was from a premium popcorn business who brought in their samples and samples from all their competitors. They were that confident that their food was superior – and it was!
You need to understand what makes you different. To give an example I used to see a lot of artisan crisp businesses who would bring their hand cooked, quirky-flavoured food in matte packaging to me. They all tasted and looked fantastic but for me, they were all the same. SO when I’d ask ‘What makes you different?’ the answer never fully convinced me. I used to hear, ‘it’s the potatoes we use’ or ‘it’s the heritage of our family’ or ‘we only use British flavours’; but how does a shopper know this when their stood at a shelf for no more than 15 seconds selecting what snack will go well with tonight’s episode of Peep Show? So before you break into song about your USP make sure it’s something tangible, saleable and something that is clearly communicated on the packaging. It’s easy to sell your food at a festival when you can speak directly to a shopper but when it’s sat there looking lonely on a shelf next to some FMCG giants it’s a completely different ball game.
Finally, ask a LOT of questions. It doesn’t matter how much research you do beforehand you don’t uncover a business need unless the words come out of the decision maker’s mouth. I’ve sat in many sales pitch where I’ve been presented at and believe me I was BORED! Engage with the buyer and they’ll be more likely to open up. As a rough rule of thumb the buyer should be talking 80% of the time because you’re asking the right questions. Treat them as the category expert and glean as much information from them as you can. Opportunities come and go so quickly in retail that if you’re not there and not asking the right questions you’ll miss them.
My final advice may be a little confusing, so I’ll try to explain it succinctly: don’t damage your brand but don’t let your pride beat you. I’ve had too many presentations from small businesses that have been fantastic and then the commercials let them down when they say things like ‘I know this product sells at this price therefore I won’t give it to you for any less’. Well great – I know what price point works in my business and what doesn’t. If you’re confident that working with this particular customer is the right thing to do then you may have to compromise on price or find a creative way to appease the buyer (offer sampling, free stock trial, marketing support). Contrastingly if you’re not confident that this customer is the right one to work with for your brand don’t do anything that will damage the name you’ve built. It’s all well and good saying this now but in the heat of the moment I’ve seen great businesses crack under negotiation to the detriment of their business. So it’s worthwhile playing these scenarios through before you go in and sticking to your conviction.
The next edition in this series will look at what happens next: the negotiation and getting to yes!
Northern Munkee