Wholesale is usually where serious maker businesses look to up-level. It also can be fraught with nuance and special knowledge. That's why we love member Lela Barker. She is helping makers wholesale like champs through her program Wholesale Matchmaker (which is open now!). Today she's giving you some of her insider knowledge!

Understanding how to approach retail buyers is one of the most challenging pieces of owning a product-based business. The etiquette is fuzzy at best, the signals they send are often mixed, and the hidden insecurity that many of us harbor as business owners rears its ugly head to cloud the picture even further. I sometimes feel like I need a secret decoder ring to interpret the signals and decide what the hell I’m supposed to do next. 

I’ve been a full-time maker since 2003 and a wholesale coach to other makers and product designers since 2012. That work has provided an opportunity for me to sit on both sides of the table. It’s also taught me that the battle surrounding pitching our work to buyers is the biggest Achilles Heel for virtually every entrepreneur I work alongside.

Since we’re in the midst of prime pitching season in the world of retail, I propose that we convene an emergency meeting of the Secret Squadron. I’ll bring the mimosas as we huddle together and compare notes on buyer interactions and explore how to stay the course in the face of mixed messages and echoes of silence.

1. Modern buyers are shopping from their Instagram feeds, their inboxes, and through trade shows. 

Not long ago, buyers had to board planes and fly into big cities, to spend their days wandering the aisles of fluorescent-lit convention centers on the prowl for new products. Trade shows still have a place in retail, though they’re expensive endeavors best-suited to well-branded businesses who are either exceptionally well-funded or those who have been in the entrepreneurial trenches for a few years.  

The process of reaching buyers is now more democratized, thanks to the advent of the internet and the increasingly prominent role that social media plays in our lives.  Many of the buyers I speak with today save their frequent flier miles for personal vacations, opting instead to shop from their inboxes and Instagram feeds.  Buyers expect to be pitched via email, so abolish any fear that this isn’t an acceptable approach. It’s not at all uncommon for shopkeepers who are managing the most coveted stores to receive hundreds of email pitches each week.

Buyers increasingly share with me that they’re keeping a close eye tuned to Instagram, too. The inherently visual nature of the platform helps them identify and connect with brands who have cultivated a strong visual presentation. Those strong visual presentations also play well in brick + mortar shops, which makes Instagram the hottest marketplace of the moment for retail tastemakers. Trying to play the full social media field will spread you thin and lead to less-than-stellar content, so choose your platforms wisely. If building a successful wholesale arm is on your 2017 agenda, then Instagram should have a special place of honor in your social media strategy. 

2. Do some homework on the front end, then do everything in your power to put your best foot forward in a pitch.

Blindly pitching to every shop on the block will yield precious little fruit. It takes a bit of time on the front end to ensure that each store you plan to introduce your work to is actually a good fit. Peek at the shop’s website and social media feeds for clues…

  • What’s the vibe of this shop? 
  • What types of products are sold?
  • How varied are the price points? 
  • What other brands are already on the shelves? 
  • How will your product fit into that mix?
  • What type pf customers do you envision shopping here?

My clients struggle mightily with finding fresh shops, understanding if they’re a good fit, and unearthing buyer information. That struggle led me to develop Wholesale Matchmaker, my professional matchmaking service for product-based brands. It cuts out all of the research and lends a seasoned, carefully-tuned eye to each connection, so that you can be more confident in your pitches and more efficient with your time. 

Whenever possible, address the buyer by their first name and weave in a clue or two that shows that you’ve done your homework. Link them directly to your line sheet and website and ensure that those facets of your brand really shine. Remember: selling wholesale is an advanced strategy. You’ll need professional packaging, stellar product photos, and a sharp-looking website in order to catch the attention of a buyer. 

3. Silence is perfectly normal.

If I had a single dollar for every time my clients shared that they’re hearing crickets when pitching their work, then I’d be living on a private island in the Caribbean. Silence is to be expected. Buyers are fantastically busy people and they have just as many balls in the air as you and I do. They rarely reply in the immediate and placing unrealistic expectations on this relationship leads to disappointment for you and frustration for them. That painfully ambiguous silence could mean many things…

  • The buyer is busy and hasn’t seen your pitch.
  • The buyer saw the pitch and hasn’t yet gotten back to you because of other things on their plate at the moment.
  • They’re intrigued, tucking your pitch away for a later date.
  • They’re interested but not in a buying cycle at the moment.
  • Their interest is piqued but they already have a competitive product on the shelves.
  • The buyer saw the pitch and have some level of interest, but need to run it by someone else to get their read on the brand.
  • You’re reaching out in the wrong buying season and they’re saving a reference of the work for a more appropriate buying cycle.
  • Something else.

Resist the temptation to jump to conclusions in the face of silence, and continually refuse to allow discouragement to get the best of you.

4. The magic is in the followup.

Learning to read the signals (or non-signals) that buyers send is an art.  My best advice is to gently press until either…

  1. You change your mind about the suitability of a potential store.
  2. You hear a direct “no” from the buyer.

Everything else should be considered a greenlight. I sort responses into one of three buckets:

HOT PURSUIT: This is concerted effort to actively land the account. Every new buyer that you introduce your work to should be considered a hot pursuit, at least initially. In this phase of the chase, you’re reaching out frequently and proactively. Send a personalized postcard, then follow up via email 14-21 days later via email. Keep on that email followup cycle for a couple more rotations. Make certain that you’re following the shop’s social media accounts and liking select images/posts.

CASUAL PURSUIT: This is a continued quest to keep yourself on the account’s radar while doing a “downshift” on the investment of effort. Ensure that you’re following the shop’s social media accounts. Like their posts and periodically leave a comment (side note: that comment should not be a pitch of your work). When prime buying season approaches and you launch a wave of postcard mailings, make certain they’re on the list. When you release a new product, resurrect the email contact and send a personalized email letting them know.

RETIRE THE EFFORT: I only advocate waving your white flag in the face of two possibilities: the account directly declines the brand or your opinion changes with regard to them being a “good fit” opportunity. If you receive a direct decline, then I suggest channeling your effort elsewhere. If you can gather your cajones, thank them + ask if they have any specific feedback. Only ask once. Don’t expect a reply. Be gracious if you get one and thank them for their time. Pour one out for your homie, shake it off, and move on!

I created a sweet little flow chart to help guide your next steps once you’ve made the initial contact. I invite you to grab a copy of my Retailer Speak Cheat Sheet and put it to good use.

5. Patience is your greatest weapon. 

Pitching takes an extraordinary amount of patience. I like the analogy of planting a garden.

You till the ground when you do the important brand development work that serves as the foundation of your outreach.

Proactively introducing your work to buyers is the equivalent of scattering seeds

You shower those seeds with water + sunshine whenever you consistently follow up on your buyer outreach.

It’s important to periodically lay down fertilizer by taking great care of your relationships with stockists (buyers who pick up the brand).

Remember that seeds don’t sprout in a day and neither will your retail business. Stay the course… I promise that it’s absolutely worth the effort!

Lela Barker is the president of Lucky Break Consulting: Arming creative entrepreneurs with the knowledge + tools they need to build empires!

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