Natural Foods Merchandiser

Weigh In: How can I best work with small and startup brands?

Three industry professionals give expert tips on how to develop a sustainable relationship with small and start-up brand vendors.

Sometimes the process of bringing a new brand into your store goes off without a hitch: The vendor is great to work with, the product sells, everyone cheers and you begin a long, fruitful partnership. Other times it’s rockier. Even if you love a new product, you might quickly learn that the vendor is in over his head, that he suddenly got an attitude or that he just isn’t exerting as much effort as you are. Here are nine expert tips for finding and working with new brands and ensuring that these relationships flourish. 

Retailer

Look for likeminded vendors. We try to find new companies that have missions much like ours. For instance, our store is very focused on local, so we’re always looking for brands that buy local ingredients to put into their products. We’re also a sustainable company, so we want vendors that make products that are good for the earth and use sensible packaging. We don’t want to see a bag within a bag within a box. Sharing the same values helps both parties succeed.

Help brands get polished before pitching. We recently created a New Vendor Info page on our website. It has a list of questions that we’d like brands to be able to answer before presenting their products to us. This helps them create a better pitch and maybe realize they have more work to do. We’ve already seen great results. I get emails from startup brands that already have everything completely laid out. This saves us a lot of time and back-and-forth.

Be flexible yet firm. Tell new brands right away what you need from them in order to do business. The clearer you are, the better they’ll understand your expectations and deliver. Stress open and continued communication. We understand sourcing issues and other snags, but when vendors don’t communicate, we’re tough on them. We’ll say, “Listen, I was clear with you, and you’re not hitting these expectations. You really need to do better.” They usually improve.

–Michael Benoit, lead buyer at Healthy Living Market and Café in South Burlington, Vermont

Retail Consultant

Cut brands a few breaks. Find ways to make it easier for small brands to grow sustainably without many added costs. You shouldn’t give away products, but look beyond margins and sales and consider the overall value that a brand can bring you. Cut them a break on slotting fees, which really add up for new companies. Put their products on endcaps or in a special section that features small, local and upstart brands, and don’t charge them extra for this space.

Embrace their product knowledge. Look for brands that take the initiative to educate you about their product and its category. You know your store, but you can’t be an expert on every single item when you carry several thousand SKUs. It should be a symbiotic relationship in which you and the manufacturer learn from each other. This will help your store become stronger.

Prioritize value over sales. A lot of big natural brands are now sold in nearly every store on globe. A perfect example is Clif Bar. These bars sell very well, but because shoppers can find them anywhere, they’re not what attract people to your store. But smaller brands with specific attributes do. Yet retailers tend to make placement decisions based on sales and not on what really attracts shoppers and drives categories. Highlight niche products instead of shoving them to the side.

–Daniel Lohman, owner of Category Management Solutions in Littleton, Colorado

Natural Products Broker

Celebrate their stories. One of the best ways to introduce a new brand is to celebrate the personalities and stories behind it through displays and signage. If the company isn’t local, “Made in the USA” is still a good story, so play that up. Have local brands come in to meet shoppers and demo. Create a cobranded educational event or tour of the company’s facility so customers can see how natural products are being made in their community.

Emphasize non-GMO. Large conventional retailers won’t take a stance against GMOs, but you can. This is a major flag that independent natural stores should be waving right now. Carrying non-GMO products offers a huge value proposition while continuing to force big changes on the national level. Look for smaller brands that are non-GMO, and promote them. You’ll help them grow, and through them, you can keep communicating the truths of the natural products industry.

Don’t feel backstabbed. This industry is one of few where an entrepreneur can still walk into a store, launch and eventually become a big national brand. Retailers should pride themselves on being a launchpad instead of getting wrapped up in feeling backstabbed when small brands get big and go mass. Celebrate these wins rather than taking them personally. Keep the engine going by bringing in new products from other startup brands.

–Karen Farrell, director of national brand management at Presence Marketing/Dynamic Presence in New Gloucester, Maine

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