Robert A. Jacobs & Associates
Marketing & Sales Consulting: Transforming new ideas from models to markets!
9 Essential Tips & Strategies For Selling to Mass Market Retailers - Insight From Retail Buyers, Merchandise Managers & Influence Experts By Robert A. Jacobs
"Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." Dwight D. Eisenhower
Do you represent a great product or service? Or perhaps you’ve invented a new product that you think would be perfect for Costco or Wal-mart, maybe Best Buy, Target or Michael’s? Maybe you’ve watched Shark Tank, the hit TV show that provides opportunities to pitch goods in the hope of securing funds to kick new ideas into high gear and you’re wondering whether you really need that kind of funding to get your idea into the hands of consumers. The answer is…it depends. So let’s dig deeper.
I’ve spent the last 41 consecutive years (give or take a few months here and there to manage a part time record company) reading books, attending seminars, trying numerous ideas, making mistakes, learning from them and as a result practicing, refining and understanding what it takes to earn a great living selling products and services to big box retailers. And fortunately one of the benefits of this process has been gaining the trust of hundreds of mass market retail buyers who are willing to share their ideas about how to best help them achieve success in their jobs so that buyers and sellers are more likely to create mutual success scenarios.
Here’s what I’ve learned. First of all the chance of selling anything at all to big box retailers without having at least one face-to-face meeting or perhaps having one of the Shark Tank celebrities make a phone call on your behalf is minimal at best. And having shared this bit of harsh reality during past seminars I can sense an all too familiar mass gasp emanating from readers far and wide. But don’t panic because fortunately audience members also frequently pose the obvious follow up question, “Well, how do I get them to agree to a face to face meeting when they don’t even return my phone calls or respond to my emails?”
“Aha!” I typically respond since this question drives us directly to what you need to focus on to win the keys that open the door to mass-market retail sales success.
First it’s important to understand that big box chain buyers are inundated with literally hundreds, sometimes thousands of requests weekly for their attention. So my advice is to not take it personally if your efforts have not been successful to date since if buyers spent their time trying to answer all inquiries they receive they would not have any time to handle their many other job requirements. So a bit of empathy on your part couldn’t hurt. But the reality is that most chain stores have some pain points and problems in common with other chains that they’d like to resolve. And in short if you convince a buyer or gatekeeper that you might be able to help solve those problems then you will be more likely to get noticed. The key here is in understanding the subtle difference in attitude and approach between trying to help retailers reach their goals versus trying to “sell” your product or service.
Nevertheless the reality is that there is no 100% cookie cutter formula that works for all retailers because each retail chain also has at least a few unique issues, usually caused by a combination of internal company imposed constraints and external market forces that they’re facing which need to be understood and addressed by vendors to help close deals. Your job as a seller is to discover what these issues are and offer your solutions to help assist in solving these problems. Now this is by no means an easy feat to accomplish. But by mastering and appropriately applying the following tips you can greatly increase the probability of becoming a valuable contributor to the success of retail buyers and as a result earn those keys to big box selling success:
1) Become an expert at basic selling skills – prospecting, meet & greet, building rapport, analyzing customer needs, negotiating, anticipating and diffusing stress including vendor selection stress between sellers of products with extremely small differences, selling value instead of price, E-mail/written communications expertise, phone skills, understanding buying triggers/signals and closing. Now I know this first step sounds like a lot of work. And in fact it is! So if you’re an inventor with no sales experience or perhaps an employee of a company that is fantastic at making great products but has no interest in being turned down time and time again by big box retail gate keepers, then my advice is to hire someone who already has proven sales expertise and pay that person or organization to work their magic on your behalf. But for those who crave the thrill of doing it themselves, please read on.
2) Do Your Research to identify emerging but not yet established demand so that you can help retailers shape customers' needs, rather than react to them. A bit of pre-call research can also be helpful to find key issues about the company as well as about your buyer (s) prior to the meeting. Take note of anything you have in common with buyers to help begin the conversation on a good note and build rapport.
3) Practice delivering key points before getting in front of buyers. Anticipate objections in advance and practice answers ahead of time. Also keep in mind that in order to generate a phone call response or meeting you not only need to “give great phone expertise”, it may help to offer the potential customer something of value; for example a curiosity-arousing, new, innovative idea, article, product or service, and make it available on his or her time schedule and at a location of his or her preference.
4) Establish credibility to help secure face-to-face meetings: use referrals, success stories with similar retailers, reference your articles/books written, give helpful stuff away. And remember that there is an extremely low probability of closing deals with mass-market retailers unless you can secure at least one face to face meeting with someone who can actually make buying decisions.
5) Ask the right questions before “pitching” your product or service. Have a series of questions ready to help establish two to five needs (especially if they don’t know themselves what their needs are) and determine whether the buyer has any pain points. Is she happy with the way things are now? And if not then what would she change if she could? As one of the buyers for a multi-billion dollar Canadian based global parent company of several retail chains said, “It makes so much more sense to begin a selling conversation when the seller first asks the buyer what it is he’s trying to accomplish, what challenges he’s facing in trying to solve those problems and what results he’s looking for.” And beware that it’s not necessarily the buyer who makes final decisions. It’s up to you to find out whether you’re talking to a decision maker or whether others will be involved.
Furthermore you must decide whether your product or service actually meets their needs. And if your solution doesn’t work for them, then be honest and offer a referral to someone who can actually help. This grand gesture of integrity will set you up as a potential key contributor to the buyer’s success, confirm your status as an industry expert who is willing to share key connections and demonstrate in no uncertain terms that your ultimate goal is to help the buyer be successful.
6) Anticipate, Understand and Confirm needs – Your ability to restate your potential customer's pain is critical. As a buyer for a mid-states 200+ locations general merchandise chain shared, “The best reps think like a buyer by understanding what I need and presenting a clear plan of how they’re going to help me grow my business.”
7) Add value by offering new ideas or new approach solutions that match the customer’s needs. Focus your proposal on what your offering will do to improve the customer’s current situation rather than on how good your product is. And consider that customers who are experiencing internal changes may be more receptive to new ideas than ones who have great relationships with existing suppliers and believe, whether true or not, that their current needs are being met.
8) Ask For The Order & Deliver fantastic service. Exceed your customer’s expectations both before and after you’ve received the order.
9) Ask for referrals once you’ve confirmed your customer’s satisfaction repeat the process with new potential customers while at the same time paying close attention to what selling nuances tend to work best for specific types of customers. Analyze what worked well so you can do more of that and less of what didn’t work so well.
Now having shared the above tips I would be remiss if I didn’t add that you don’t have to get all nine areas 100% right in order to be successful selling to big box retailers. In fact according to one buyer for a global warehouse style retail chain, “It’s amazing to me the number of reps that just don’t do what they say they’re going to do. My best reps are always the ones who are honest and have proven over time they keep their promises.”
So as marketing guru Seth Godin extols, “Be extraordinary!” Set yourself apart from competitors. And one way to do so is as simple as consistently demonstrating your superior level of integrity. Do what you promise to do or if you’re not sure whether your company can expertly manage a buyer’s request, just don’t promise it. Instead promise to find out and then get back with a timely yes or no answer.
As a final point understand that even if you do master all nine tips and just coincidently also happen to be one of the most honest people among your circle of friends, the harsh reality is the buyer probably will not really care about your specific product no matter how great you, your boss nor your company think it is. Plus much research indicates that buying decisions tend to be made based on a combination of feelings and logic, with feelings most frequently winning out as the dominant buying motive. So although in the buyer’s mind your product might not be significantly different than your competitors’ products, she will remember you if you stir her emotions and convince her that you can help reach her goals. Moreover keep in mind that mass-market retail deals are almost never closed at the first meeting. Managing the details of sales processes for these multi-billion dollar global giants can be quite complicated and could take as long as 12 – 18 months or in extreme cases even longer to complete. For example I began working on a deal with Target on behalf of a new vendor client in August of 2014, closed the deal in February, 2015 but didn’t ship any product until November because in this case that’s how long it took to wade through the many agreements, procedures and processes required to get this particular new vendor up and running.
But if you’re persistent, learn from your mistakes, continue to practice and improve relevant skills, grow your influence over time and use each win to build towards the next one, you’ll earn the keys that open more doors and slowly but surely your success rate will increase along with your income.
Bob Jacobs is an author, speaker and entrepreneur who has been helping retailers and suppliers achieve their goals since 1974. He earned his MBA in Business Management from Pepperdine University and a B.A. in Marketing/Advertising from San Francisco State University. His book, “Essential Elements of Selling To Mass Market Retailers” is due out in fall of 2017.