How to Sell to Department Stores

I was doing a little bit of online research when I came across an interview I did a while back for Prime.org.

Hope it is of some use to you!

 

Jules Xx

How to sell to department stores

How to sell to department stores

Approaching an independent retailer to stock your products is one thing, but household names like John Lewis and House of Fraser can seem out of reach for small suppliers. Where do you start? Who do you talk to? And what do you say?

Many department stores are friendly giants with a good record of stocking interesting and unique products from independent suppliers, and some make a point of promoting ranges that have been sourced from within the UK. If your product’s right for the store and you pitch it well, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be in with a chance of success.

Tea, anyone?

Jules Quinn, director of The Teashed, whose high quality teas have been stocked nationwide by John Lewis since October 2012, launched her business with a contract to supply Fenwick in Newcastle.

“Having a retailer like that on board from the start meant we could grow much more quickly,” says Jules, who made her first contact by simply going into the store, asking who the head buyer was, and showing them her product – fine tealeaves in pyramid bags, quirkily packaged in their own disposable paper cup. They snapped up the idea.

“John Lewis happened because we got featured in Living Etc magazine,” she explains. “I sent the editor a letter and samples of the products and they loved them, and a John Lewis buyer saw the article.”

There are all kinds of ways in, and the best one for you will depend to a certain extent on your product. “Be nice in your approach,” is Jules’s advice. “It is important to get them to look at your stuff though.”

Researching the store

Before you approach a department store with your product, make sure you do some thorough research. Is your product suitable for department store sale in the first place? Are similar or comparable product ranges already stocked by them? Popular categories include high-end food and drink, seasonal products and fashion.

You also need to make sure you can sum up your product’s USP (unique selling proposition) succinctly and persuasively. What benefits or solutions does it offer? How well has it sold in other outlets?

Researching the store you’re planning to approach is also key. Do they already stock something very similar to your product, or is there an obvious gap in their range that you could fill? Is your product likely to appeal to the store’s typical customer?

Who do you contact?

Once you’re ready with your pitch, you need to get your product into the hands of whoever holds the purse strings at your target store. Some department stores provide guidance and contact information for would-be suppliers, but in some cases you will have to do some investigation. “Find out who you need to speak to,” advises Jules. “Not a random generic e-mail address – find names and numbers.”

Most large department store chains have a team of buyers, at least one of whom will have responsibility for the department where your product would be stocked. These are the people who make decisions about what products are most likely to sell, and plan ranges well in advance.

Some department stores make information about who to contact freely available online, including Selfridges (http://bit.ly/LTphWT).  Harrods allows prospective suppliers to register with them via an online portal (http://bit.ly/d8ToO8).

Notonthehighstreet.com is an online department store with an emphasis on products that are handmade and/or designed in Britain. Their approach to sourcing places them somewhere between conventional department stores and online marketplaces like Etsy.com, in that they charge a one-off joining fee for sellers to begin listing their products, but claim to be picky about who they accept.

Their website gives relatively extensive guidance for prospective suppliers, including details of the types of products they prefer (high quality, innovative and, obviously, not readily available on the high street), and what type of supplier they like working with. Go to www.notonthehighstreet.com/join/signup to find out more.

However, other stores make things a little trickier. Here are a few ideas for getting in touch with department store buyers:

  • Trade shows are a great place to network with and exhibit your products to buyers, who are often in attendance and on the look-out for new products.
  • You could also get in touch directly with the store’s head office and ask how you can contact the buyer for your target department.
  • Social networks – particularly LinkedIn – can be an excellent source of information, and many department store buyers will have their own profiles. You may even find that you have a contact in common, who might be willing to provide an introduction.
  • Getting press coverage for your product, like Jules did, is another way of getting it under the buyers’ noses.

Meeting a buyer

If you do manage to secure a meeting with a buyer, prepare thoroughly. Make sure you have all the information and any samples the buyer has asked for, in mint condition. Think a step ahead: if the store agrees to stock one product, what opportunities are there for you to supply a product line in future? And be ready to be flexible: if they’re keen but want to change the packaging, let them.

You should also be prepared with realistic figures in mind about the level of production you can achieve and the logistics and timescales involved. The store will want you to be flexible and quick. If they want to order 10,000 Fairtrade tree decorations in time for the Christmas shopping period, could you achieve that? How much would it cost? What’s the minimum mark-up you’d need to achieve on your unit price?

Jules, who has shadowed retail buyers, says one of the things she noticed was that people’s pitches often let them down. “People didn’t really know what buyers are looking for,” she says. “They couldn’t get their USP and costing over quickly enough.”

If the buyer decides your product isn’t for them, don’t push it. “For me, if a buyer wants it, they want it,” says Jules. “They know best what will work in their shop.” However, she does advise asking the buyer why they’ve turned you down. “Listen to buyers’ feedback – they know their industry. People can be quite precious about their products, but listening is really important.”

Other issues to consider

When supplying to department stores, you must make sure your product complies with all the relevant legal and safety requirements, and the store’s own policies. For example, Debenhams will not stock products that are tested on animals or made from timber that doesn’t come from sustainable sources.

You’ll also need to factor in the department store’s payment terms and your cash flow. The Government’s Prompt Payment Code (www.promptpaymentcode.org.uk) was launched in response to smaller suppliers reporting late payment from large firms, and you can check whether or not a store has signed up by visiting the website. Some stores have standard terms, or they may negotiate these with suppliers individually.

Nothing ventured…

Department stores are still among the most powerful players on the high street, but one of their own USPs is the ability to offer a diversity of products that’s absent from many retail chains, so it’s in their interest to keep an eye out for new suppliers. What’s more, not only would having them sell your products mean more sales and exposure, you’d also benefit from the experience and know-how of some of the best buyers in the profession as you develop and grow your business. The worst that can happen is that they turn you down, in which case you’ve had a valuable learning experience. And if you don’t try, you’ll never know.