For many growing businesses, getting products on the shelves of the supermarkets remains the gold standard of mass distribution.
The problem is ‘the big four’ can be notoriously difficult to deal with. Here’s the Elite guide to getting ready for market
With the internet offering such easy and direct distribution, it can seem like more hassle than it’s worth getting your products into the supermarket. But when your enterprise is looking to scale, you’d be a fool to ignore this as a very valid avenue of distribution.
First of all, it’s worth bearing in mind that as far as supermarkets go a little originality goes a long way. Helen McAvoy, sales and operations director of frozen cocktail maker Rocktails, believes it’s a vital part of getting your product on the shelves. “Everyone wants their customer to have a unique experience across the board,” she remarks. “It doesn’t make a difference whether you sell cars or cocktails.”
Sometimes it’s just built into your idea from the get-go. Bulldog, the producer of men’s natural grooming products, found its concept simply served a demand that wasn’t being met. When co-founder Simon Duffy was browsing the beauty aisle, he noticed there were no options for men who wanted natural grooming products. “They had heaps of brands focused on women that offered this natural benefit,” he says. “But there was just nothing there for men.”
For some ventures, however, this development is much less a spontaneous genesis and much more evolutionary. Rocktails’ drinks have taken the market by storm. But this doesn’t mean that the serve-at-home market was their original focus, as McAvoy reveals. “What we actually started with was an idea to do high-service, high-footfall bars and a cocktail drink for those,” she comments.
Carrying out extensive research, they found that demand was limited, with bars closing on a daily basis. But there was little provision for at-home cocktail drinkers. “At parties, catering events, if you were having a wedding in a marquee or if you were going to a picnic – it wasn’t very easy for people to recreate cocktails,” she continues.
Uniqueness is always important. Emma Jones, co-founder of StartUp Britain and founder of Enterprise Nation, remarks, “You probably don’t want too much of what’s already in the shop.” StartUp Britain’s recent scheme PopUp fixes entrepreneurs up with premises to showcase their wares: they’ve had everything from Cake Follies’ burlesque-themed cakes to Little Babas’ animal outfits for kids. “I think this message is really getting out into the market now – knowing your audience, creating something that’s off-the-peg and unusual,” she concludes.
Testing the product on the market can also prove invaluable. To get an impression of its marketability, Rocktails took its product on a tour of the UK and ran focus groups. “We had a really good uptake from people who were asking, ‘Where can I buy it?’, ‘How can I buy it?’ and we were saying, ‘Well, we’re not actually available – the product isn’t even officially launched’,” McAvoy recalls. “That was a really good sign.”
As with Higgidy, our case study, many ventures trade for years before taking the next step and pitching to supermarkets. Duffy says many businesses like to grow into it. “‘I’ll start off small, perhaps I’ll sell online, perhaps I’ll sell in a few independents’, and it’ll grow into this phase where they want to launch with a big supermarket,” he says. But for Bulldog it was never the intention to take that approach. Duffy continues: “We decided that we wanted to do that straight away.”
Jones also feels that it is important to know what the best approach is for your own venture. “You really do have to know and feel that this is the right move for your business to scale up,” she says. As an example, she mentions the famous case of William Chase, the founder of Tyrell’s Chips who turned down distribution in Tesco as he felt their mass production would weaken the vision he had for his brand. Jones posits: “It’s a really intriguing question for any business: ‘Do I really want that contract?’”
Once you’ve made your decision and prepared yourself, the next step is the pitch itself. This is where preparation and a solid product really pays off. Rocktails found the strength of its concept paid dividends. “It was relatively easy for us because we have such a unique product, so it wasn’t like we were pitching a bottle of water or something really generic,” McAvoy remarks. “Our brand itself is memorable – people tend to remember when they’ve seen it.” Not to say that even a successful pitch won’t come with recommendations on how to improve the product. “They did come with some feedback, in terms of the packaging, the messaging and the shelf-ready packs,” says McAvoy.
Products can also be assessed as part of a range view. Here, buyers take selections of existing products and potential products in the category and compare them visually as well as comparing cost, marketability and a range of other factors. At this point, the producers have zero input. Duffy admits it’s an incredibly nerve-wracking time. “It’s a bit like leaving your kids at the school gates the first time: you don’t quite know whether they’ll get on with the other kids.”
Sometimes, though, this is a daunting step to take without any prior experience. Fortunately, help is at hand. Part of Jones’s role includes running StartUp Britain’s scheme PitchUp, which puts entrepreneurs in contact with buyers at John Lewis. “It’s an easy access route in to the buyers that you need to meet,” she explains. Not only that but it’s an excellent chance for enterprises to gain valuable experience and feedback. “They have not been able to guarantee us that anyone will win a contract, just because they can’t do that,” she says. “What they have said is they will give feedback on things like ‘You could have done that better’, ‘We like your product but maybe this…’ or ‘You should really think about your pricing’.”
A successful pitch isn’t the end of the story, however. There’s one big challenge that comes after that it really pays not to underestimate: scaling up to meet demand. McAvoy found it can be really tough to find a way to upscale production without huge amounts of revenue. “The [manufacturers] were saying, ‘It’s not worth our while’,” she recalls. “For them 10,000 units is a drop in the ocean – they wanted 100,000 units and we couldn’t start with that.” Fortunately, they eventually managed to secure a local manufacturer that was just beginning to expand into food and drink and that was able to start with the kind of limited run they needed.
Duffy remembers the moment the Sainsbury’s buyer rang to give him the news. “He said: ‘Congratulations guys! We had a really good result in the range view and we’re going to launch nationwide in 350-plus stores’,” he recalls. “And I was just elated. For about ten seconds I was like ‘Wow!’ But then we had to figure out how to make it work.”
Higgidy - Founded by Camilla Stephens and James Footit
We didn’t know that there was necessarily a demand for our product. It was all about what we would like or our friends or mums would buy. We’d seen lots of product development in other places such as in chocolate, coffee, crisps, ice cream; there were some really beautiful brands available at the higher end of the market. Pies seemed to be a really neglected area.
Effectively, we started making pies in our kitchen. Then we got a bigger kitchen and a bigger kitchen. We just got started and supplied coffee shops, delis, pubs, garden centres and gastropubs – effectively, we really learned about food manufacturing during that time. Lots of food companies work with manufacturing partners and that’s the way they operate. We found early on that for us it was an important part of
what we did that we made what we did. Our product was quite homely. It’s become a core element of our business, of our brand, and we really love the fact that we do the making side of things. We got ourselves into position and then we had an opportunity to go into Sainsbury’s. That was actually a government scheme called Supply Something New. We got an opportunity to go in and were actually able to present to some quite senior people at Sainsbury’s, some of the directors. And they decided to give us a chance. That was our moment.
We were quite clear about why our brand was different. One of the things that we talked a lot about was we felt that we could bring new customers into the category we were in. Our brand was in an area that was quite masculine and male; we decided that we would have our brand appeal more to a feminine customer. That was one of our angles, which was different but, as it turned out, correct.