Introducing a new series of regular Business Advice features, discovering what it’s like to sell to some of the biggest names in British retail, we find out first-hand what it’s like selling to Sainsbury’s as a small supplier.
For many of the country’s small business owners, getting their product stocked on the shelves of the UK’s largest retailers is the ultimate achievement.
A listing with the likes of Sainsbury’s, John Lewis or Selfridge’s can transform a company.
Yet, for many company owners, approaching large retailers can be a daunting prospect. The sheer size and buying power of these corporate giants can make them seem impenetrable.
Smaller producers may wonder how they hope to compete with far larger, international suppliers, that may be offering more cost efficient deals.
To help answer some frequent small business questions and quash some commonly held doubts, Business Advice spoke to several small UK company owners that have successfully cracked it when it comes to selling to Sainsbury’s.
The country’s second largest supermarket chain operates more than 1,200 stores across the UK, ranging from convenience stores to megastores and including mixed use locations such as petrol stations.
According to its “Becoming a supplier” application platform, Sainsbury’s is “always looking for new UK producers and suppliers, both medium and small”, with the aim of finding “new innovative products, made in the UK, that are truly unique, have an interesting heritage and most importantly taste great.”
Thousands of brands pitch new products to the retailer every year, so achieving a listing often requires a heavy dose of luck, as well as persistence, a dedicated team behind you and a thoughtful approach to networking.
For Will Little, founder at Devon-based instant coffee producer Little’s, a relationship selling to another UK supermarket also helped when navigating Sainsbury’s.
Little’s 30 year-old family-run business had been supplying flavoured instant coffee to Waitrose for five years before landing on the shelves at Sainsbury’s in 2015.
The Waitrose arrangement helped him realise selling to nationwide retailers may not have been as scary as he first thought.
“Waitrose were easy to deal with, and the experience with them definitely provided a springboard when we looked towards Sainsbury’s,” he told Business Advice.
According to Little, selling to Sainsbury’s was a different proposition entirely to that of Waitrose.
Being “at the right place at the right time” with Waitrose led to a small 40-store local listing, which evolved into a national listing within a few years.
“Waitrose was more of an organic process,” added Little. “We were lucky that sales grew quickly and they offered to expand the listing. With Sainsbury’s, we waited a long time – nearly 12 months – for the coffee buyer to get back to us after a chance meeting between him and our sales guy led to us sending in samples.”
Little initially sent Sainsbury’s several bestsellers among his brand’s range of 12 flavoured instant coffees, along with a commercial proposal of what he could offer.
“They turned us down the first time,” added Little. “Sainsbury’s said there was no room in the category, that the supermarket was ‘not looking to grow its flavoured coffee category’.
“So we tried again a year later, and they said something similar. Then, a few months after that, we received a call from the Sainsbury’s’ buyer saying they had some room.”
Little emphasised how important it was as a small brand to pitch in the right way, especially to a supermarket like Sainsbury’s which sometimes receives hundreds of offers a day.
“The Apprentice-style pitch is old-fashioned,” he explained. “You need to catch the imagination of buyers with good samples alongside strong statistics and projections to get your foot in the door.
“Company owners often don’t know enough about their own brand before they approach supermarkets. You have to know what you and your supply chain is capable of before entering a pitch, and give buyers a fair view of what’s achievable.
“You’ve also got to know exactly where you’ll sit on the shelf. Which brands are you competing against? Why should they replace an existing product with yours? If you can’t accurately answer these questions you’re not ready to approach Sainsbury’s.”
Entrepreneur Harriot Pleydell-Bouverie agreed that it’s important to be honest about your brand’s capability during the pitching process, particularly with a retailer like Sainsbury’s that can see straight through a business that isn’t prepared.
She described selling to Sainsbury’s as “fun, but scary,” adding: “You’ll worry that you haven’t got everything right. If you’re not able to give accurate forecasts, you’ll struggle.”
Pleydell-Bouverie has had a different experience selling to Sainsbury’s than Little. Her gourmet marshmallow brand, Mallow and Marsh, was among the first winners of a startup competition called PitchUp to Sainsbury’s in 2013.
After a three-stage knockout process, including firstly submitting an online application, a Dragons’ Den style pitching stage then a final interview, Mallow and Marsh won a year-long local listing in 20 Sainsbury’s stores.
In three years, that listing has been extended to 150 stores across the UK, and Pleydell-Bouverie now views Sainsbury’s as an important mentor, enabling her company to grow from a one-woman “kitchen table business” into national player.
Using Sainsbury’s as a platform, Mallow and Marsh has since won major contracts with Marks & Spencer and BP.
By virtue of winning PitchUp to Sainsbury’s, Pleydell-Bouverie received a greater level of input from the supermarket’s buying team than other business owners might. “I needed a lot of help to get the supply chain ready,” she admitted.
“Because I won PitchUp, everyone at Sainsbury’s was rooting for me. It gave me masses of exposure and contacts, as well as validation. I thought to myself, ‘if Sainsbury’s wants my product, then it must be good!’ It gave me confidence.”
Many small suppliers might not have considered approaching Sainsbury’s in the first instance, but Pleydell-Bouverie knew what she wanted for her brand, therefore making huge efforts to get grab the supermarket’s attention.
She advised fellow small business owners not to be shy, and that if the end goal is to become a market leader, be bold and try to establish a relationship with the big retailers early-on.
“They aren’t as soulless as you might think. They’re all humans at the end of the day, and they understand small suppliers sometimes need a leg up,” she said.
“People shouldn’t be afraid to pitch to Sainsbury’s, they can only say no. If something goes wrong further down the road, they’re very much on hand, in my experience. We’ve been through thick and thin with Sainsbury’s, and once you’ve done that you establish a level of trust.”
Little also encouraged those wishing for a Sainsbury’s listing to have confidence in their brand and product.
“The market is changing,” he emphasised. “There’s a real opportunity for challenger brands to take on household names, and supermarkets like Sainsbury’s are beginning to recognise their value.”
Coming up soon in November in our new series, Business Advice will be learning more about selling to big British retailers, as we meet small suppliers to John Lewis and health food supermarket Planet Organic.
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