Landing an account with Whole Foods Market is the Holy Grail for every natural products startup and considered an important milestone in a brand's distribution strategy.
Yet, for all the cachet and mystique, snagging shelf space in Whole Foods is a relatively straightforward process and not as challenging as you might think. Here are some tips for getting your great product into the world’s largest natural retailer:
1. Be ready.
Some schools of thought say "Get on the shelf, as soon as possible,” even if you haven’t fully worked out final labels, packaging or production. Others disagree with that approach. "Don’t do it," says Steven Hoffman, managing director of Compass Natural Marketing. “You want to approach Whole Foods when you have all your t’s crossed and i’s dotted,” he says. “First impressions are extremely important, and if you stumble, you may not get a second chance.”
Hoffman suggests doing your beta testing in coffee shops, independent grocers, farmers’ markets or other small venues. Find out how consumers respond, make sure you can fulfill orders smoothly, and work out kinks in packaging, production and inventory before you go to Whole Foods. Smaller stores are more forgiving of glitches, and more likely to give you feedback about your product.
Which is not to say you won’t have tweaks along the way. “We started with stickers on clear bags, because we didn’t have the money to print 20,000 bags,” says Wes Crain, President of Navitas Naturals. “We’ve continued to evolve along the way. But we started out with smooth production, solid branding and a crystal-clear mission statement. That’s the piece that just shouldn’t change.”
2. Go local.
When you’re introducing your product to Whole Foods, it’s better to start locally and regionally, says Tom Rich, executive coordinator of purchasing for Whole Foods’ Rocky Mountain Region. “If you start nationally, you need to have a system in place for national distribution, and there’s a much bigger chance of problems and mistakes,” Rich says. “When you focus on one region, it’s a lot simpler to figure out that distribution piece. You’ll also get an idea of regional sales, so you can anticipate national sales and have a greater chance of operating smoothly and being successful.”
Products must be approved on a regional basis, but you can start the ball rolling at your local store. “Take your product to your local Whole Foods and ask to speak to that category’s team leader,” says Hoffman. If they like it, ask them how to get in touch with your region’s buyer, and take it from there.
At the same time, realize you may not choose to go national at all, says Andrew Aussie, chief operating officer of Coromega. “If you’re a small, local brand operating out of a rented kitchen, success may be getting in your local Whole Foods stores,” he says. “You may stay at a regional level, and that’s fantastic too.”
3. Get your timing right.
Whole Foods reviews brands by category on a specific schedule, and that’s important to know. “If you brought us a juice in March but the review was in June, we'd tell you to come back in June,” says Rich. “If you ship us a bag of granola in November but the review’s not for six months, we have to hold on to that bag of granola for six months. That’s inconvenient.”
The schedule differs from region to region, so be sure you know your region’s most up-to-date review schedule (though it doesn’t change much from year to year). If you don’t have a broker yet, contact your regional Whole Foods office for a copy.
4. Live up to their standards.
“One of the most important things you can do is know Whole Foods’ objectives and standards for products they carry,” says Goluba. “Ingredients, non-GMO status, a focus on Fair Trade practices—all those things are essential. If your product isn't aligned with Whole Foods’ objectives, you don’t have much chance of getting in.”
If you’re not familiar with Whole Foods’ standards, view Whole Foods Market Quality Standards on their website, and find the category that applies to your product. Be sure every ingredient in your product follows their guidelines, but also know that your regional buyer won’t necessarily reject your product if it contains an objectionable ingredient.
“We’ll work with companies, and see if there’s a better substitute for an ingredient they’re using,” says Rich. “In the end, we want to create win-win partnerships with our local communities, producers and customers; that's our bottom line. We are available and interested in meeting with people and learning about their products; it’s just better if they understand the process as a whole.”
5. Show up prepared.
Once you get an appointment with a regional buyer, show up with the right stuff. Look professional, bring plenty of product samples, have sales sheets and refine your presentation or sales deck, which could be a simple Powerpoint on your iPad. Be sure your pricing is in place. You’ll present Whole Foods with the wholesale price and your suggested retail pricing, but behind the scenes, you’ll also need to work in distributor pricing. Even if you don’t have a distributor yet, you likely will in the future—and if you haven’t built in that margin, you’ll get burned.
Most of all, welcome feedback. “If they offer suggestions for revising your packaging or changing an ingredient, don’t be defensive,” Hoffman says. “Be open-minded, listen, take notes. You get to decide, but you definitely want to hear their suggestions.”
How to drive sales once you are in
You did it. You made it into Whole Foods Market. But now what? How will you compete with all of the other amazing and innovative natural, organic and healthy products on the shelf next to you? Here are five tips for fueling your product sales once you're in Whole Foods and building a rock-solid relationship with this important natural retailer.
1. Be an enthusiastic partner.
When you get approved for a store or a region, your work has just begun, Hoffman says. “The danger is, you don't want to get taken off the shelf because your product’s not moving,” he says. “Now your vigilance has to really increase. That's where you want to be an enthusiastic partner.”
Coupons, periodic sales, in-store promotions, discounts, product demos, any kind of marketing that’s going to drive sales is a must—and it’s required by Whole Foods. Be sure you budget for these efforts, but don’t think you have to come out of the gate with a full-on promo plan that includes monthly sales and advertising. “We want people to be promotion-minded, but we also know some people don't have capital to support that yet,” says Rich. “And we're okay with that.”
2. Demo like mad.
If you have a limited budget, demos are your best-spent money. Bring product samples, business cards, coupons, whatever will help you sell your product; consider investing in custom-printed T-shirts with your company’s logo. And choose your team wisely. The best person to demo is the one who created the product, says Rich. “They can speak more intelligently and passionately about your product,” he says, “and they have a personal investment in increasing sales.”
Whole Foods does require a certain number of demos, depending on how many stores you’re in. “It’s best to start small,” says Rich. “Here in our region, we might say ‘Hey, start in the Boulder market, and hit each store once a week for a couple of hours a day.’ Once that market’s developed, then you can move to Denver and develop that market, then move on to the next market and develop it.”
3. Forge relationships with team members.
When you demo your product, you may be there for a couple of hours a week. Team members, on the other hand, are there for eight or more hours a day, every day. “Once you get your product in Whole Foods, the most powerful and important thing you can do is build a relationship with team members,” says Rich. “They’re your army; if they know you and they’re familiar with your product, they’ll show it to customers and talk about it, even when you’re not there.”
Be friendly and pleasant, and go out of your way to be helpful. Offer trainings when appropriate or possible and you’ll have a chance to more deeply educate store personnel about your product, says Crain. And know the terminology: They’re not “staff” or “employees”—they’re “team members” and “team leaders.”
4. Get a broker.
“A good local broker is worth his or her weight in gold,” says Rob Goluba, director of marketing for Hearthside Foods. “They’re dialed in on Whole Foods’ objectives, what's driving new product decisions, what the trends are, like whether gluten-free is getting hotter or colder. A good broker—not just someone who gets you an appointment—can keep you in touch with that.”
Brokers have regular meetings with Whole Foods’ buyers, and they’re acutely aware of when different regions review products. And having a broker is essential if you’re going national. You can’t personally visit stores across the country, and someone has to look out for your best interests, Hoffman says.
5. Consider a loan.
Do you have a truly unique product? If so, Whole Foods offers a Local Producer Loan Program that may allow you to build out a kitchen and amp up production, without giving away any of your company. Whole Foods provides low-interest loans to local farmers and food producers. You have to meet the company’s quality standards, use the money for expansion and capital expenditures versus operating expenses, and have a viable business plan. Start-ups can borrow up to $25,000, and organic products are preferred.
Generally, Whole Foods will ask for a six-month exclusive, but it’s not required, says Rich. “It’s an attractive offering for us, because it allows us to sell a product that no one else sells,” he says. “It gives us an advantage, and we will bring it up, but it’s definitely not a must.” You can find more details and apply online at Whole Foods Market’s website.