Supply chain · 27 October 2016

Selling to Sainsbury’s: Insight from those with stocked products

Will and Caroline Little
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.


Little’s range of flavoured instant coffee

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 youll 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 isnt prepared.

She described selling to Sainsbury’s as fun, but scary, adding: Youll worry that you havent got everything right. If you’re not able to give accurate forecasts, youll struggle.



Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.