Supply chain · 3 April 2017

Selling to Whole Foods: Insight from those with stocked products

Whole Foods Aduna
Whole Foods gives suppliers the opportunity to showcase products in store

As a premium supermarket chain with a healthy lean to it, Whole Foods represents a great opportunity for up and coming food, drink and wellness brands – but how do you get stocked in the first place?

Business Advice has made it one of our missions to help readers get their products stocked in some of the leading retailers Britain has to offer. From Screwfix to Sainsbury’s, and from Platet Organic to John Lewis, we’ve found out how different businesses have got products onto those illusive shelves – and now it’s time to hear about the Whole Foods approach.

Set up by American John Mackey in 1980, Whole Foods entered the UK market in 2007 through its first site on Kensington High Street. There are now nine locations in the UK, the majority of which are in London. While the US brand has not extended its British footprint since 2014, it has increasingly become a retailer of choice for up and coming brands.

Jimmy’s Iced Coffee started off with Selfridges before moving on to selling with Whole Foods, a decision made by its founder for a specific reason. “We figured, if you launch somewhere premium and amazing, then you can filter out into mainstream stores – but you can’t do this the other way around,” Jim Cregan told us.

He is of the belief that Whole Foods customers generally want to engage and are interested in the story behind products. The benefit of Whole Foods for Jimmy’s Iced Coffee is that the drinks maker has been able to showcase its product with in-store sampling without the procedural red tape you might find in other retailers.

Cregan’s journey to becoming a Whole Foods supplier was an unusual one, but demonstrates the length young brands must go to if a buyer is to take notice.

Whole foods lets suppliers tell their personal story

“I parked our car in the loading bay of Whole Foods and got escorted upstairs by a chap who was cleaning the decking outside of the office. He interrupted a buyer’s meeting and she came out while I was stood in the lobby, as you can imagine she wasn’t impressed that her meeting had been disrupted,” he remembered.

“That’s our startup mentality, when you’re just starting out you want to be on the shelves of Whole Foods because they support independents. They expect brand owners to be hungry and ruthless in their attempts to get into their store. When it comes to bigger retailers you need to be more strategic, and this takes more time.”

Cregan believes the unique nature of Whole Foods is that it is after “rad companies that have got the branding, packaging and ingredients licked”. Products should also be on trend, with popularity in the US being a big plus for Whole Foods – with coconut water being a good example of this. “They like to know that you’re going to invest your time in in-store sampling and working with them to ensure the product launches well,” he added.

Another example of a trendy product that secured a Whole Foods listing is Aduna, an Africa-inspired health food brand utilising the continent’s ancient ingredients. Banasa Williams, head of health food retail at the company, deals directly with Whole Foods and said that while every category is different, it is very helpful to have a product with strong ethical credentials or sourcing model, great packaging that can stand out on a shelf and a product that is in line with future trends.

Young brands like Aduna are given promotional spots

The Aduna pitch to Whole Foods was not “drastically different” to other retailers, and was actually made easier as the businesses have shared values. “It’s very helpful to get your products stocked with a wholesaler Whole Foods already uses, particularly if they wish to trial your products in lower volumes,” Williams advised.

“Once you’re on shelf, Whole Foods is quite supportive of small suppliers and will work together with you to build rate of sale.”

She advocates coming to Whole Foods with your commercial plan and pricing structure carefully planned out. Also of importance is understanding the category your product falls in and the USP – so it can stand out in a very busy store environment. “Most importantly, have a plan for how to drive sales in-store once your product lands on shelf,” she noted.

While Aduna’s pitch very much centred on its health conscious approach and shared values, Two Chicks took advantage of the fact Whole Foods is frequented by many Americans living in London. The brand, which started out selling liquid egg white before branching out into other products, took stock of what was being done on the other side of the Atlantic.

EGG_WHITE_PACK_VIS_FRONT“In Whole Foods in the US they stock about five different brands of egg white and have done so for years, so the idea and concept is established. It is also high end and stocks many healthy products so fits nicely with the majority of our target market,” co-founder Anna Richey told us.

One of the unique elements to Whole Foods, which Two Chicks has made the most of, is that suppliers are able to do tastings on the shop floor with their own people – most supermarkets insist its staff are used. “Plus there are other opportunities, such as being able to design a shop window for a period of time, which we just did for our new pancake mix,” Richey added.

Gregan’s final piece of advice for budding Whole Foods suppliers is on the supply and payment side of things. “What they like is if you can secure a listing with a local wholesaler and you then set up your payment terms with them, typically its 30 days from invoice. You only find these wholesalers from asking the buyer at Whole Foods.”

Hearing from our three Whole Foods suppliers makes it clear what Whole Foods are after. Firstly, make sure you have an on-trend product that looks great. Then effectively communicate how you will go about making sure a product launch works. Finally, be prepared to spend time in the stores you’re stocked in to introduce customers and drive sales.

Want to learn more about getting your products stocked with other major UK retailers? Go back and read some other features in our “Selling to big business” supply chain series.

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Hunter Ruthven was previously editor of Business Advice. He was also the editor of Real Business, the UK's most-read website for entrepreneurs and business leaders at the helm of growing SMEs.