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How to work with independent retailers

how to work with independent retailers
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When you are in your first few years of your business, one way to increase your brands visibility, exposure, brand awareness and sales is through working with independent retailers. There are many pros and cons about whether the wholesale route is suitable for your type of business model but most lifestyle brands and independent designers consider it at least. When you make the decision to go into wholesale, finding win-win partnerships is key. Here are my tips on how to work with independent retailers.

As I mentioned in my Sale on Return Dilemma article, understanding the retailer’s business is very important even before you agree to work together. Today’s market landscape is very competitive and saturated. Independent retailers battle with big high street retailers over customers. Price wars are a common strategy to win over business. Small, independent retailers are very vulnerable to market changes, consumer behaviour changes and insecurity. However, compared to big players in the market, they can be flexible and offer something different to their customers. They can provide a very unique and personal shopping experience. If you can help the retailer to make themselves different from their competition, you both can benefit.

One of the most common mistakes I see when it comes to working with retailers is “leaving them to it”. You agree the terms and off you go, now sell for me. My motto in life and business has always been “you get out what you put in” and so if you leave them to it, your chances of sales, or even some sort of effort, are seriously diminished. This is what I used to do:

When I used to deal with retailers, I was always asking about their business: How things are going? What kind of customers, clients or projects they get/work on? What about competitors? What are they doing differently? Are they planning an open day or an event which we can help with? What kind of marketing do they do? Ask anything and everything to understand how best you can help them.

What made us stand out more, compared to our competitors, was the support we offered. Do they need catalogues, leaflets, care/instruction manuals? Are they struggling with some technical or practical issue which they haven’t come across before? Become to be “the trusted source” on the other side of the phone when faced with problems. This might even mean doing favours to your competitors..in a way. For example, when we used to sell fireplaces we were competing with other manufacturers within the showroom. When the retailer had a problem, let’s say with the door mechanism, they called me to ask what I thought was wrong with it. My knowledge of competitors’ products helped me to resolve the issue, which later on paid off through sales gained through building trust and being “the expert”.

Educating is a game-changer. Coming back to the above example, one way I used to win over sales was through educating the retailer on: various materials (e.g. cheap versus quality), how products are constructed, why they are constructed in certain ways, where competitors are cutting corners, what impact does that have on the quality and longevity? I was constantly educating them not only on our products and its benefits but also beyond that – the wider market.

So for example, if you produce handmade furniture which has an unique process or approach, you can educate them on all the benefits but also on the materials you use and what impact they have on the planet compared to mass-produced furniture. Educate on how disposable society affects the world around us and what kind of issues future generations might be faced with as a result.

Or, if you produce fashion accessories educate them on particular technique or mechanism you use, which again is so different to mass-production. If you make scarves that are crease-free, explain to them the different materials and practicality around that. Can you wash it, instead of dry-clean: why? Teach them. Always go beyond your product’s USPs and educate on the wider issues. That way the retailer is armed with knowledge which will helps them to sell your products better for you.

Another way I used to stand out from our competition was hosting events in the retailer’s showroom. It used to be either a whole day or weekend where I came in and educated their customers. We marketed it as “meet the manufacturer”, or if we were demonstrating our grills and cookers, we had cooking sessions to show customers first hand on how to use the product and what it actually did beyond heating. Such events are particularly successful for products with multiple usage. However, this can be easily applied to other product categories. So for example, if you manufacture a handbag, you can host styling sessions to show how to use it throughout the day – from morning to evening, showcasing perhaps 3 different outfits to support the idea. Also the content of the bag could be different; so with the morning outfit it could have a laptop or paperwork in, while for evening it could have a scarf and make-up pouch. 

Once you start building your retail network you are probably going to realise one thing: your competitors have sales reps on the road. Their job is to go from retailer to retailer, visiting them on regular basis. If you don’t do the same, you’ll be losing out on the importance of building relationships. My fear used to be: if we don’t show up, our competitor’s sales rep will. At the end of the day people buy from people, building trust and working on the relationship is vital. It’s a must. I used to allocate days of the week or a month (ideally before the season starts) to drive around, visiting showrooms – just to say hello and check in to see if I could help, or maybe even top up on brochures and pricelists. If your stockist has multiple brands in your product category, I highly recommend you to invest your time, or employ a  commission-based sales rep, to drive around and visit them on regular basis. 

Want to be part of a group of like-minded creatives who are going through what you’re going through? We have an amazing community of emerging designers, interior designers, stylists, fashion accessory brands, artists and photographers, where we help each other grow. This is where I encourage sharing knowledge and brand collaborations. No fakes, self-centred liars and backstabbers are allowed. Please join us here. And, feel free to share if you found this useful!

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