Supply chain · 21 April 2017

Selling to Boots: A retailer hoping to “find a nugget” from independent suppliers

Selling to Boots
Getting a product into Boots’ 2,500 stores is the ideal way to reach a national audience for a small health and beauty brand

For the latest in a Business Advice series helping readers get their products stocked by the UK’s leading retailers, we speak to two suppliers who succeeded in selling to Boots after winning over the store’s buying team.

As the UK’s longest-standing pharmaceutical chain, Boots is one of the first places a young brand will consider when looking to break a health and beauty product into a high street market.

Since 1849 the chain has built a name as a cosmetics staple on UK high streets, but it has a distinctly commercial outlook. The chain’s professional standards director told a committee of MPs in 2009 that Boots would continue to stock homeopathic remedies based solely on consumer demand.

Now, Boots’ 2,500 stores stock a product selection ranging from toiletries to healthy snacks, leaving significant opportunities for smaller suppliers to get on board and join hundreds of existing brands.

Future suppliers seeking a listing will need to ensure Boots’ “sustainable and ethical supply chain” standards are met, including fully traceable origins of materials as well as environmental footprint.

Ask any small supplier selling products in nationwide stores how they got in and they will likely give the same answer – by targeting the buying team. As reported earlier in our supply chain series, trade shows and exhibitions are an ideal hunting ground for retail buyers. In some cases, it could even lead the buyers to you. 

This was the experience of Shaun Pulfrey, founder of the detangling Tangle Teezer hairbrush, after a Boots buyer witnessed his stand at The Clothes Show in 2008 being “mobbed” by youngsters wanting to buy his product.

“That gave them confidence that we could develop into a successful brand,” he told Business Advice. In Pulfrey’s experience with Tangle Teezer, being a new brand with an innovative product was attractive to Boots.

“Every buyer at Boots has loved what we are trying to do, and that’s been hugely encouraging given the knowledge they have for the beauty market,” Pulfrey explained. He added that the buying team is constantly on the lookout for new and exciting products, and like nothing more than to “find a nugget” from an independent company.

Tangle Teezer’s Shaun Pulfrey and Matt Lumb
Tangle Teezer’s Shaun Pulfrey and Matt Lumb

Gracie and Sophie Tyrrell, the sisters behind Squirrel Sisters’ raw energy bars, began their journey with Boots in 2016 after recognising the store’s efforts to expand its range to reflect the healthy lifestyles of customers.

“We saw that Boots was making a change with the kind of products it made available – it looked like there was a healthier offering in general. We felt our product would fit in really well,” Sophie explained.

For the entrepreneurial duo, a plucky phone call to head office was all it took to get through to the right buyer.

“She was happy to see some more information. She liked the look of the product and the presentation we sent over. They were then were keen to try samples. So, we sent those over and they absolutely loved them,” Gracie said.

A buyer’s time is valuable, and being able to demonstrate the potential of a product quickly and stand out amongst the vast number of suppliers looking to get into any store is important. In the Tyrells’ experience, it was all about the product.

“They said the taste was brilliant and they loved the packaging,” Sophie added. “It did exactly what it said. There are a lot of bars out there, we did stand out in terms of format, brand, quality and taste. That for Boots is key.” 

The Tyrrells also found Boots was ready to welcome new products. “The buyers there are quite forward thinking and were excited by smaller brands,” Gracie explained. “They’ve got really high standards for what they believe is a good product. Things aren’t put on the shelves for the sake of it.”

Capturing the attention of the buyers is part of the challenge, but, as with any retailer, proving customers will buy your product is vital when selling to Boots. So, what does a smaller brand need in place before approaching the buying team? For Squirrel Sisters, having a clear marketing and PR strategy was fundamental in gaining traction through the initial meetings.

“It was our first big retailer, and we already had proof with a rate of sale in other places, meaning it could have belief in us. We made it really clear we were going to do everything we could to push sales and transcribe into repeat purchases,” said Sophie.

The Tyrell’s launched their bars in November 2015 on its own website, before gaining listings with Planet Organic and Whole Foods. This online presence was crucial in bringing products to a wider audience as early as possible.

“It meant we were available nationwide. People from Scotland, for example, could buy our bars, whereas we weren’t available in stores there,” Gracie said.

Squirrell Sisters co-founders Gracie and Sophie Tyrrell
Squirrell Sisters co-founders Gracie and Sophie Tyrrell

To win over the buying team, Pulfrey said the most important thing for a future Boots partner was to have a clear vision of where they want to see their brand in five years, as well as an understanding of Boots’ own objectives as a business.

“If the two can align, then you can work together as partners, rather than a traditional supplier and customer relationship,” he explained.

Like Tangle Teezer, Squirrell Sisters also proved its brand alignment with Boots. The Tyrrells warned fellow entrepreneurs against blindly targeting as many retailers as possible. Having a product that clearly reflected the existing offering in Boots was important for both brands.

Pulfrey’s final piece of advice for the next Boots supplier was to seek out the expertise of someone on the inside.

“Find someone who knows Boots and the way it works before you approach the buyers. My first recruit was Gemma Clarke [Tangle Teezer’s chief marketing officer], who had previously launched many brands into Boots. She gave us confidence that we could grow successfully with Boots, and gave Boots confidence that we had the knowledge and experience within the company to trade with them,” he explained.

The Tyrrell’s agreed that connecting with the right people – inside and outside of Boots – should be a priority for any small business owner hoping to reach the shelves.

“Use tools like LinkedIn to find out who the right people to speak to are. Be patient, and be persistent – but without being annoying. Have the confidence to pick up the phone and speak to people you know. Communicate with other people who are in there are already,” Sophie advised.

One thing is clear from the experiences of these two business owners – there is an outlook within Boots as an organisation that smaller brands can become an important part of the product selection. This remained evident as the partnerships of Tangle Teezer and Squirrell Sisters progressed.

“I found Boots’ demands to be realistic of a startup brand. It wanted to help us to succeed, not exploit us. From day one it felt like a win-win relationship,” Pulfrey explained.

The Tyrrells also spoke positively of their relationship with the supply chain teams, particularly in the early days.

“They were really helpful. We’ve built a strong relationship with the stock manager. That’s really helped us to plan, bringing things forward and pushing things back,” Sophie commented.

“One thing we can both say about the Boots team is that they’ve been incredible to work with, so supportive. As a startup they’ve been ideal to work with.”

For these entrepreneurs, selling to Boots as a young brand required a store-ready product that would fit in on the shelves, a solid grasp of numbers, and a business plan that demonstrated a commitment to future sales. Striking this balance is the key for any small health and beauty supplier looking to take the next step.

Want to learn more about getting your products stocked with other major UK retailers? Go back and read some other features in our “Selling to big business” supply chain series.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is a reporter for Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and previously worked as a content editor in the ecommerce industry.

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