For the latest in a new series of features on how to sell your products to Britain’s major retailers, we consider selling to John Lewis, taking a look at what is required to get your product stocked by one of the UK’s oldest department stores.
Selling to John Lewis involves a partnership with the retailer that, according to the company itself, is “built upon establishing deep, sustainable relationships”.
We spoke to two entrepreneurs who have successfully navigated the pitching and negotiation processes at John Lewis to find out whether the platitudes surrounding the brand’s ethos reflected the reality.
Firstly, however, you need to be able to grab the attention of the purchasing team and show that your voice is worth being heard.
Graeme Fraser-Bell founded Accentuate with his sister, Fiona, launching the accent-impressions adult card game in 2014. The family dynamic of the business is reflected in the nature of the game, now stocked in every John Lewis store in the UK.
With a previous career as a vice president for an industrial materials company, Fraser-Bell was well-versed in the world of business, but Accentuate represented an early-stage brand that had something to prove.
Initially marked as an online-only product – available through Amazon and the brand’s online store – John Lewis’ tradition for family games led Fraser-Bell and his business partner to head straight into the store themselves.
“We prepared oversized boxes with the game inside, along with a specific, very visual brochure demonstrating why our product was right for John Lewis – with a balloon attached.
“We walked right into the Liverpool branch and requested to hand-deliver the box to the manager of the store. Unfortunately, we had to make do with their personal assistant,” he said.
Fortunately, the way that Accentuate was delivered created enough movements around the company to warrant an invitation to the store’s head office in London to meet with the toys and games buying team in October 2014.
When the entrepreneur and his business partner walked into the meeting room, many of the staff were already getting stuck into the game before they had even arrived.
“Our product had created a great buzz,” Fraser-Bell recalled.
He added: “You’ve got to be bold, that was the whole approach that we took.
“We were expecting a lot of executives: suits, ties – that sort of thing. We were surprised by the mass of young people in casual clothes.”
Fraser-Bell’s advice was to know that you are offering something that is unique, eye-catching, and reaching a market not yet cornered.
He said: “What you are selling has to be a stand-out product. It has got to have a great look – and I wouldn’t knock simplicity.”
In preparation for the product pitch, Fraser-Bell advised potential suppliers be able to demonstrate the concept of their product within 30 seconds.
Alongside a deep knowledge of your own product and business, also important is research into John Lewis itself, and in particular, the purchasing department.
“Do your research about all the different layers within John Lewis. Get the names of the buyers, and try to engage with them,” Fraser-Bell added.
Claire Gelder, founder of Wool Couture, makers of handmade woollen accessories, agreed that the owners of other small companies with hopes of selling to John Lewis must be able to describe in just a few sentences what their product stood for, and what value it would bring to the market.
It was in May 2016 – almost a year after founding her business – that Gelder heard that John Lewis were “really interested” in adding Wool Couture to their partnerships.
In the first meeting with John Lewis, Gelder turned up with “a bag full of goodies” that best represented Wool Couture as a brand and demonstrated the accessibility of the products.
Following a promising first meeting with a buyer, doubt was cast over the entire pitch – a follow-up message left to Gelder gave the impression: “I’m leaving tomorrow”.
Fortunately, the products were equally well-received by the next representative of the purchasing team. The word back from John Lewis was that the retailer considered the brand’s DIY knitting kits as a strong new market.
Selling wool as a supplier was a well-trodden avenue, but the full kits made by Wool Couture provided a clear target demographic that Gelder knew the retailer would be best suited to reaching.
“They were so receptive, so helpful,” Gelder recalled of the initial meetings.
Despite the consensus that this was a brand suited to John Lewis, a tough negotiation process followed – the inevitable next step in setting up as a supplier.
When it came to the negotiating table, Gelder was keen to stress the importance of her previous career as a director for the NHS.
“Reflecting on that part of the process, without my experience at the NHS – spending 15 years negotiating contracts in hospitals and managing teams of 300 people – I would have crumbled.”
Otherwise, she added: “Seek professional assistance, or advice at the very least. Even without buying the service, you can still get valuable expertise just by talking to people and networking.
“It’s easy to go into a room and say yes – but you have to be savvy with the price of your product. The financial side is crucial,” Gelder said.
Gelder revealed that she had received several offers from other retailers along the way, but she knew that to retain the integrity of the brand, and full control of the business, selling to John Lewis was the right retailer for Wool Couture.
“A lot of other retailers approached us before we secured the deal with John Lewis – but working with only the right retailers is crucial for your brand,” she said.
The terms of the partnership with the retailer remain non-exclusive – Gelder is able to sell her products “where I want, when I want”.
Gelder believes that the integrity of a business is paramount. She added that keeping the Wool Couture brand at the core of the whole business was “very important”, and John Lewis enabled her to do this.
“If you have a product targeted at a certain demographic, you risk tarnishing your brand if you lose complete control over its distribution. We would sell our product without it being branded by us,” she said.
Fraser-Bell nodded to the “degree of respect” from John Lewis to its suppliers, not always evident in the relationships between small companies and so-called “supply chain bullies”.
“The whole ethos of the John Lewis brand is evident in each store – the concept of the ‘partnership’ is in the DNA there. They go extra mile to help us.”
Of the retailer’s purchasing department, Fraser-Bell identified “a very committed professional team – a great fit for our brand”.
The partnership with Accentuate meant that John Lewis was the first “bricks and mortar” retailer to stock the game, and Fraser-Bell acknowledged the continuation of a strong relationship between supplier and retailer.
In terms of meeting the increase in demand for Accentuate on the market, Fraser-Bell admitted that the retailer “pushed us hard”.
“But we both knew the limits of what to expect. You’ve got to know your volume limits and your commercial limits.
“What makes John Lewis stand out from other retailers is the strength of forecasting. This means that we can plan according to what their plans are.
“John Lewis demonstrated faith in us and our product. We repaid that faith”
There is strict criteria for suppliers selling to John Lewis – the “ethos” is something that runs through the experiences of Accentuate and Wool Couture – and before attempting to supply the store, you must consider whether your business can commit to its sustainable sourcing, reliable supply and appropriate packaging and branding that fits with its outlook.
What is recognisable in both Fraser-Bell and Gelder’s brands is that product selection is very much controlled, maintained and carefully refined when necessary.
Even if your brand succeeds and reaches the shelves, can you be sure that one or two years down the line that a competitor hasn’t advanced on your product?
Sustaining a product is a key challenge of entrepreneurship, and one Fraser-Bell and the rest of his business family have prepared for in Accentuate. His advice to small business owners is to “keep something in reserve”.
He said: “Consider the Apple approach – keep refreshing the value proposition of your product.”
But central in selling to any retailer – particularly one with a product selection and identity as recognisable as John Lewis – is the demonstration that your product both fits in with the existing outlook of the brand, and offers something that the current product selection does not.
Catch up on the series by finding out the secret of selling to Sainsbury’s.
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