Business development · 7 June 2016

Getting your small food brand stocked by the likes of Selfridges and Planet Organic

“We want to give shelf space to new and interesting ideas. It’s about taking a risk sometimes,” said buyer

From knowing when to approach big-name buyers to working out the most effective way to do so, a panel of experts at the Business of Wellness (BOW) Summit organised by one of our recent On The Up founders, Lauren Armes, were full of advice for pitching to stockists. We scribbled away furiously in order share their insights with our readers.

Bringing together 500 entrepreneurs, brand leaders and investors in the wellness space together in London for the first time, the BOW event was brimming with discussions of althlesiure, fitness trackers and hot yoga. And with the global wellness industry worth an estimated $3.4tn globally, it’s one that would-be entrepreneurs and small business owners are keen to get on board with, with healthy food brands are at the forefront of the change.

So in an increasingly crowded marketplace, how can a small brand get noticed? Selfridges’ food buyer Scott Winston highlighted how important it is to make it personal, even when dealing with a household name. “It’s about finding your tone of voice and your own perspective,” he emphasised. “When an entrepreneur has an emotional connection to their product, you know they can do it.”

This was a sentiment reiterated by Planet Organic founder Renée Elliot. “Look for things that you can do better. Is there a product which annoys you? There are so many different ways to push forward.”

Entrepreneurial grandee James McMaster, former COO of game-changing baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen and now the CEO of Life Health Foods, also highlighted the importance of letting brand personality shine through when it comes to trying to catch buyers’ eyes in the first place. “Retail buyers want real brands, not just products,” he argued.

How to weigh up your own passion for an idea against external feedback was also cited as important, though the experts were divided over how much weight to give both. “Connecting with the audience you have in your mind for your product and checking it actually exists is key,” said Winston.

For Elliot, however, early-stage business owners should follow their hearts. “If you have an idea you can’t let go of, go for it. If you have an idea that you’re deeply passionate about, chances are there’ll be people who feel the same way.”

McMaster emphasised the need to balance the two aspects by getting plenty of feedback but taking it with a pinch of salt. “When it comes to early stage product development, bravery and gut feelings are important,” he said. “But you do also have to really understand your consumer. Be really open to listening to friends and family. You’ll see me handing out samples on the street and asking people what they think – you need to be humble, but also have thick skin.

“Paul Lindley, who founded Ella’s Kitchen, was laughed out of the room for saying he wanted to put baby food in pouches, because it wasn’t the norm and everyone expected baby food to come in glass jars. So listen to people, but also back your gut instinct.”

When it comes to founders who have done this but are unsure if they’re ready to approach the big names, the advice was unanimously in favour of giving it a try. “There are many instances where someone has come to us with ideas and samples and we’ve worked with them,” said Elliot. “You have to have done your research and have a business plan, but we’re not like a big retailer, we’re run like a family business.”

Winston is also willing to work with people whose young business is still a work in progress. “We want to give shelf space to new and interesting ideas. It’s about taking a risk sometimes,” he explained. “We have flexible footage which we can use to showcase new brands, and, in the past, we’ve worked with entrepreneurs for 12-18 months to get a product shelf-ready.We will help brands bring a product to market, including advising them on ingredients.”

To secure that all-important meeting, McMaster counselled entrepreneurs to think outside of the box. “We sent an Aussie lifeguard to deliver samples of Australian breakfast drink Up And Go to buyers, and I know of a founder of an iced-coffee brand who walked around outside Sainsbury’s head office to get the attention of their buyers,” he explained. “You have to do things differently, or the big boys win.”

For Winston, the collaborative process doesn’t end after they’ve given a brand shelf space, either. “We’ll have a plan with joint success criteria agreed, and make sure it’s reviewed. If the targets aren’t being met, we’ll look at why, and whether a product might do better in regional stores or online. There are lots of levers to pull to make sure we maximise the relationship.”

This is true for ethical and environmental principles as well as sales goals. “We told the founders of Ugly Drinks that we didn’t want to sell water in single-use plastic bottles. They went away and came back with cans, and we were able to put them back on the shelves, which was great,” Winston said.

And if, despite your best efforts, you don’t succeed in getting your young brand onto the stockist of your dreams, Elliot was adamant that disappointment is an inevitable part of entrepreneurial success.

“Two things are key for entrepreneurs – cash, and grit,” she said. “You will fail, but you need to be able to pick yourself up and keep going.”

Need more inspiration on starting a healthy food brand? Have a read of this interview with Barenaked Foods founder Ross Mendham.

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Hannah Wilkinson is a reporter for Business Advice. She studied economics and management at Oxford University and prior to joining Business Advice wrote for Kensington and Chelsea Today about business and economics – as well as running a tutoring company.

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