Celebrating the people behind British small businesses

Getting in with the big guns: a small business heroes guide to selling to retailers

Getting your product stocked by larger retailers can be a major breakthrough for any small business hero. But the path to the shop shelves of major retailers is a rocky one.

So we were really excited to learn about this new competition by Ocado called Britain’s Next Top Supplier. Retail legend Sir Stuart Rose – executive chairman of Marks and Spencers, no less – and Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge will join Ocado buyers on a judging panel to find the next hot thing in UK food and drink. Small businesses will deliver Dragon’s Den-style pitches, and the winner will not only be stocked by Ocado, but will also receive a £10,000 marketing package to promote their product. Pretty amazing, we think – so enter here now (but hurry, you only have until midnight on 16th February!)

What are large retailers looking for?

It can be really tricky to figure out what retailers actually want from you, so we spoke to a couple of small business owners who successfully got their products into major retailers. John Styring is the CEO of  IglooBooks, which now sells to Asda and Sainsbury’s – thanks to this, the company’s turnover has grown £18m in just five years. Bola Lafe is the co-founder of Aquaint – a sanitiser so safe it can be used on food and on babies’ skin from birth, and which is now sold by Boots, Amazon, and that will be sold in Tesco from May. They share their insight into what major retailers are looking for.

1) A product that will sell

“As a smaller company, it’s hard to get big businesses to give you the time to listen to you,” says John. “It was often hard to persuade major retailers that we had something unique to offer. To break into the supermarkets and achieve mass distribution, you have to first demonstrate to buyers that your product will sell.”

2) A supplier who’s on the ball

“Beyond that, you have to show that a partnership can work in an operational sense,” continues John. “At IglooBooks, we were able to show buyers that our service was second to none.  Crucially, we were able to demonstrate that we respect deadlines and distribution requirements and – most of all – that we were committed to making the relationship work. If you get a chance, make the most of it – it might be the only one you get!”

3) A product that’s new and revolutionary

Bola advises “Present them with a product that is new and revolutionary.” The sanitiser is 100% natural and so gentle that it doesn’t matter if babies swallow it, unlike traditional cleaning products. If your product genuinely stands out and offers something different, half the battle is won.

4) Something that looks good

“Ensure that the product is presented well and that the packaging is eye-catching, has a clear message, and properly represents the product,” continues Bola. First impressions are made with the eyes, and the eyes of the people you’re pitching to will be eyes that aren’t easily impressed. Make the product look as professional and inviting as possible – shoving it in a brown paper bag is definitely a no-no. Even if you can’t afford a graphic designer, see if you have an arty friend or family member who’s willing to dedicate an hour or two on some product design.

5) Credibility

“Back up your corporate credibility with accreditations, and back up your product credibility with test data and awards,” advises Bola. If applicable, try and get your product tested and accredited, and put in the time to enter awards. This will get you positive press, and get your product in front of important people. With a product such as Aquaint, ensuring that your scientific claims are completely backed up is vital.

6) A product that’s priced right

Ensure that pricing margins are adequate for a major retailer and distributor. A big supermarket will be selling your product at a lower price – but they’ll likely sell more of it. Think of this when you factor in your pricing for the product, and be prepared to offer it for a slightly lower price to remain an attractive prospect.

Pitching like a pro

Enthusiasm is a must – but you can’t rely on that to get you through. We spoke to Martin McLaughlin from Love Da Popcorn about how to excel in a pitch. He’s got quite some pitching experience – they only ruddy pitched to the Dragons, didn’t they? He’s extremely busy making new and exciting flavours of popcorn, but we were lucky enough to fire a few questions at him about pitching.

What’s the mistake that everybody makes when pitching?

Exaggerating numbers, in particular sales forecasts. It’s always good to show the potential within the market, but when you use ridiculously high figures it undermines your business plan.

What’s the single most important thing to remember when pitching?

That the person you are pitching to has no idea what your business is when you start. It is easy to get carried away with details when explaining your idea. Keep it simple so that the investor can have a clear understanding of what exactly it is you are pitching. Remember that there will be questions after your pitch that will give you the chance to go into further detail.

How do you best calm pre-pitch nerves?

For about an hour before the pitch I stop rehearsing. I like to reflect on just how cool it is to be pitching your own business. Not many people get to do that, so just enjoy it!

What makes a potential investor sit up and take notice?

For a lot of investors they are investing in the person, more so than the business. Let them know about you, but most importantly show them how hard you have worked for this and how hard you will continue to work. They want to know their money is in good hands.

How long should the perfect pitch be?

That very much depends on what you are presenting and who you are presenting to. I think you should try and keep a presentation under 30 minutes so you can keep the investor’s attention. Again remember they will have questions to ask, which quite often opens up an engaging conversation on your plan.

How do you appear confident in your product, but not arrogant?

You need to push the positives of your product for obvious reasons, but you should also be aware of your weaknesses/ the strengths of competitors. Investors know there will be challenges with every project. Showing you are aware of these and that you have a plan to tackle them will demonstrate your awareness and install confidence in the investor.

And finally, Vini Aujla of Vini & Bal’s Rustic Indian – curry sauces made from traditional home recipes, now stocked in Sainsbury’s – shares her pitching advice.

“For a successful pitch, it’s vital that you have complete confidence in your business and the concept behind it,” he says. “Not only that, but you need to know your market inside out, including any competitors. With a combination of both, you’ll be left with a strong and clear pitch that will identify and honour your unique selling point. Above all, passion will always prevail. Regardless of nerves or faltering points, you should allow them to see just how enthusiastic you are!”

Go forth and enter – you have until midnight on Sunday 16th February to be Britain’s Top Supplier! But remember that if you don’t make it, our plucky business heroes above prove that you can get there with time, effort, and an ace product.