Continuing our supply chain series on how to sell to big businesses as a small supplier, Business Advice spoke to four entrepreneurs that successfully navigated the process and began selling to Waitrose, with stores up and down the country now stocking their products.
Waitrose has built up a reputation as stocking UK-made products that offer customers a background story. It outlines four key points that it considers essential to any prospective new product:
- High quality
- Locally sourced where possible
- Appropriate presentation
- Offering a point of difference
It isn’t always as easy as checking off these points – grabbing the attention of the buying team and getting your product seen is often the most difficult aspect in gaining a listing in any major supermarket in the UK.
Fortunately for small suppliers in Britain, Waitrose has renewed its commitment to bringing in small regional brands into its supply chain. The Small Producers’ Charter sets out its objectives to bringing “the best food in people’s local areas into their favourite local supermarket”.
Moorish hummus – different but not too different
Since 2014, Julie Waddel’s Moorish brand of hummus has moved from stocking two products in 50 initial stores, to doubling its range in 177 stores across the UK.
For Waddell, the UK’s taste for hummus confirmed that the market was there, but she saw a lack of innovation. The selling point in Moorish is the smoking of the chickpeas, giving it texture and a longer life than other brands.
However, Waddell said that there was a fine line to be tread – offering something new to the market, but remaining familiar enough for customers to buy into the brand.
“Other companies have come and gone since I’ve joined the market because the products were just too different. The British consumer is still fairly conservative – we like what we know, but we also like a little variation. It worked well that smoked hummus was different enough but not too different. Hitting that sweet spot was important.”
Waddell said that she always knew Waitrose would be the “best fit” for her brand, and to match her ambitions for Moorish she upped the levels of production.
“I had to have it made in a factory to supply to company like Waitrose – not for the quantities alone but for the quality accreditation standards that you need. The factory that I started working with were already supplying a brand of dips to Waitrose, so it had an idea of volumes,” she said.
Unrealistic forecasting expectations can be enough to put a small supplier out of business if they are not met, but Waddell experienced realistic agreements with Waitrose.
“There are production expectations. An artisan setup will have a limited capacity. I wanted to work with a factory that could make unlimited amounts, so should it be a global, international success overnight, we could still fulfil orders.
“It’s not just about the pot of hummus being good – every piece of the jigsaw needs to fit into a neat and attractive picture for the retailer,” she added.
HayMax – getting the buyer’s attention
In 2005, long-term hay fever sufferer Max Wiseberg developed a home-made remedy to combat his affliction. Initially manufacturing HayMax from his kitchen, Wiseberg succeeded in selling to Waitrose and now outsources its production.
Following early listings in some health stores, Wiseberg targeted the relevant category buyer at Waitrose. Eventually getting through on the phone, he convinced the buyer to meet him at a trade show where HayMax hosted a stand.
“Selling to Waitrose is very simple but also very difficult. First, you have to find out who the buyer is and get in touch with them. Then you need to convince them that your marketing will drive people into the store to buy your product. You also need to show that Waitrose will sell enough of your product to take something else out,” he advised.
Exhibiting at a trade show was the ideal way for Wiseberg to demonstrate HayMax’s potential.
“We exhibited at the Natural Trade Show in Brighton. Supermarket representatives liked HayMax, but the consumers took to it as well,” he said.
Trade shows give business owners the opportunity to develop new contacts, get a brand noticed and remain up to date with their industry.
Piccolo – shared business values
Similarly to Waddell’s experience, Cat Gazzoli knew that the ethics and customer base of Waitrose resonated with her own brand. Since 2015, Gazzoli’s luxury Mediterranean baby food business, Piccolo, has moved from beginnings at her family’s grocery shop in Northern Italy to winning an exclusive partnership with Waitrose.
“The Waitrose consumer definitely has a great passion for food and the story behind it. As Waitrose is a co-operative, it does understand what it means to start a small business with a founding team who have stake in the company’s success. It’s not a sell, sell one-way relationship,” Gazzoli noted.
Like Waddell, Gazzoli also highlighted the importance of preparing your operations in advance for the increase in demand.
“We were well equipped so did not have any issues and Waitrose’s supply chain team is second to none,” she said.
Plenish – shout about it
Kara Rosen’s Plenish was another small brand that found common values with Waitrose. Previously a journalist in New York, Rosen began making her cold-pressed juices at home following her move to the UK, collaborating with a nutritionist to produce an organic drink to support healthy living.
“With Waitrose’s values of living well, championing British and being ahead of the field in organic produce, Plenish managed to tick all of these boxes and seemed to strike a chord with the juice buyer,” Rosen told Business Advice.
Rosen added that in her experience, Waitrose was particularly open to bringing new suppliers into its stores. However, without the right tactics and approach, even the most promising products can fail to be picked up on by the buying teams.
“Buyers are busy, so make sure in your initial contact you provide a succinct but thorough explanation of your brand, what you offer to the category you’re entering and why your brand can bring new consumers in. You then need persistence and patience to get the meeting. If a buyer says no at first, continue to send them proof of your success in the market place, and be patient.”
What gave Rosen an advantage when selling to Waitrose was her existing supply chain experience with smaller stores.
“I found it really helpful to build Plenish through independent retailers before I went to Waitrose. It gave us a good foundation for understanding our commercials, so when it came to a negotiation with Waitrose, we knew our commercial limits,” she recalled.
Rosen’s advice to prospective suppliers was supply to “do your homework”. She emphasised the importance of putting your best foot forward, knowing the product’s strengths and leading with your most impressive statistics.
“If you have properly researched your category, know exactly what you plan to bring to grow it and have a clear plan on how you will do that, they will be more likely reply to you and give you feedback,” she added.
Waddell agreed that the right brands – however small – will always rise to the top.
“It’s all about the product. If you’ve got a good product, then anything is possible. You just need them the right amount of tenacity balanced with diplomacy to get it in front of people,” she stated.
Armed with belief in their products, these owners combined persistence with market knowledge to enter one of the UK’s largest supermarkets. Their success points to Waitrose’s commitment to growing small suppliers on fair and realistic terms.
Enjoyed our selling to Waitrose feature and are a small supplier looking to get your product stocked by the UK’s largest stores? Find out the secrets in our selling to big business series.
- Selling to Sainsbury’s: Insight from those with stocked products
- Selling to John Lewis: Insight from those with stocked products
- Selling to Planet Organic: Insight from those with stocked products
- Selling to Screwfix: Insight from a successful supplier
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