One of the first things I learned after running several small food companies was success, albeit defined many different ways, was dependent on moving a lot of product. This meant I wasn’t going to make money moving a mere 30-40 cases a month at my local farmer’s market. I needed to move more.
That means selling more!
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But, it’s a lot harder than it looks. I mean, mustard doesn’t magically move out of my parent’s basement. I have to make it move (quite literally sometimes). I could do more farmer’s markets, find some private label accounts, get into more retailers, do more festivals, buy Facebook ads, etc.
For the past 3 months, I’ve been working on getting into more retail stores. Why? They order relatively frequently and when other revenue streams are dead, I’ve always got retail. Plus, distribution is king in the food industry.
As the son of an engineer, I’m super analytical and data-driven. I started this project with writing my process down (It helped to have experience in phone sales from my days working for a seller of accounting websites.).
My 5-Step Independent Retailer Process:
1. Acquire a list of retailers (lots of manual work here)
2. Research retailers to determine fit
3. Email to see if they’d like samples (more on what worked later)
4. Send samples
5. Create a follow up schedule and land that account (this was a series of phone calls and emails)
There are sub-processes for the 5 steps as well, but I won’t get into those here. With the process down, I started on the first row of my spreadsheet. They didn’t want any samples. (Oh, this was going swell). As I worked down the list, I was getting sample requests left and right – mostly over email. Fast forward to the results of my experiment.
- Retailers contacted: 103 (by phone and email)
- Samples requested: 34 (33.01% of retailers)
- Orders placed: 10 (9.71% of retailers)
It was an interesting experiment. For the countless hours of work I (and ultimately a part-time sales guy) poured into this, I had $928 in sales to show for it — not profit. When I took the costs out, I ended up with about $200 in my pocket. But, it wasn’t so much the profit as it was the process.
I think there’s more there. This number could be improved.
What I Learned:
1. A Strict Follow Up Schedule Has to Be Created (and Stuck to)
I lost track of everyone I was talking to. I had no idea who I had been contacted, who got their samples, did they get a phone call or an email. And then days later, they’d fall right back off my radar. To start, I had a phone call/email back-and-forth going on. It worked when I was dealing with a couple retailers, but as the project expanded, it got out of control. I installed Streak CRM in my gmail which helps with the leads pipeline as well as follow-up reminders. The trouble? I’d literally forget to use it. Now, I have a process written down. All that’s left is forming a follow up habit.
2. The Best Email Strategy Shows Customers Want to Buy Your Product
I was on my last handful of retailers two weeks ago. I send out 15 emails and got 10 sample requests back. What worked so well? I used something like “Hey ____, We’ve heard from a lot of our current customers that _______ would be a great place to carry our _____. Could I send you some samples? Who should I send them to?” I used a couple different variations, but playing the “customer card” worked well, even if it might have been a stretch of the truth. Bottom line: it got my product in the buyer’s mouth. Oh, and you have the buyer’s name – gold mine!
3. I Have to Spend My Time Courting Bigger Accounts
As you may have seen above, I hired a commissioned sales guy to help me sell into all of these independent retailers. I continue to give him leads on a weekly basis. There are hundreds. He calls/emails and works with me to create a process that works with both of us. When I was sending out 8-10 samples a week, I noticed how much I wasn’t doing to build my business. Now, I have a little bit more time to work on large-account sales. Still up to my neck in work (aren’t we all), but trying to get dedicated time to work on my business. Not in it. Wish me luck!
4. It can get expensive
Here’s what I send every person who requests samples: 3 full-size jars (buyers want to see what the product looks like on the shelf), a sell sheet, a price sheet, a postcard promoting our cookbook, and a hand-written note to the buyer (a simple index card and sharpie – authentic right there!). The jars are individually-wrapped and packing peanuts fill space. Thankfully, the box is free (shout-out to the USPS). All said and done, the sample kit costs me $12 to send (on average). To put that in perspective, the 34 samples I sent out above cost me $408 — almost 50% of my generated sales. But, keep in mind, I’ll make my money back on the repeat orders. If you have the sampling budget, it’s worth the investment.
5. Never give up
During this time, I attended the Vermont Grocer’s Association Annual Meeting (always a fun time catching up with fellow food producers). At the meeting, I listened to a panel on trade-shows and the importance of following up with leads. One of the panelists was Kieth, the former owner of Westminster Crackers. He let the crowd know about this follow up technique (which was a folder for every day of the month), but more importantly he stressed the importance of following up until you get a no from the buyer or a “I never want to hear from you again!” And even if you get a “no” it’s still not firm. Buyer’s change, store’s needs change. You never know. I’ve been working on some of the leads from the big list for months now. I’ll get them to order eventually!
Overall, I enjoyed this experiment. I’m going to keep doing it because at the very least it gets my product out there into people’s mouths who haven’t tried it before. Now it’s your turn! What have you done to grow your food business this year? Are you going the independent retailer route? Let me know!