8 Ways To Establish Distribution Relationships To Get Your Merch In Stores In 2021


Dec. 17 2020, Published 3:55 a.m. ET

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Seeing a product on store shelves is something most entrepreneurs dream of. But what’s the process of getting a product into stores? What steps can an entrepreneur take to realize their dream of walking the aisles and seeing a reflection of their hard work on shelves?

To answer this question, we turned to nine entrepreneurs who have “been there and done that” when it comes to successfully convincing stores to stock their products. Here are their tips on how to get your product in stores.

  • Hit Good-Fit Stores Hard
  • Online Sales History
  • Establish Distribution Relationships
  • Second Degree Connections
  • Nail Your Branding
  • Start Local
  • Earned Endorsements
  • Trade Shows
  • Pitch In Person or on LinkedIn

1. Hit Good-Fit Stores Hard

Landing a coveted spot on the shelves of a retail store is a dream most entrepreneurs with products have. But how exactly do you get from selling items out of your car to having them featured at a big box retailer? The first step is to look for the right store. Get specific about where your product will do well and go after those brands. We sell a physical female product that wouldn’t be successful at just any retailer. You have to narrow your searches and hit the stores that would be a good fit hard.  With this in mind, we went all in and attended a tradeshow that put us in front of retailers, The Indie Beauty Expo, and it was there that we were able to talk with retailers and seal the deal.

-Stephanie Schull, Kegelbell 

2. Online Sales History

The increased demise of retail businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic makes it more challenging than ever to get one’s product into retail. Surviving chains are reducing the number of vendors. So, as it has been for some time, focus first on how to build a substantial business online. Having an impressive online sales history makes your company much more compelling to buyers of large chains who carry your product line.

-Jeff Williams, Bizstarters

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3. Establish Distribution Relationships

Getting Laughing Man, a coffee company we did work for, acquired by Keurig enabled their coffee brand to be carried in Costco. Since Keurig owns several attractive distribution relationships, we viewed an acquisition as one of the best paths to achieve distribution at scale in order to achieve the mission behind the company. The acquisition path may seem like a distant pipe dream for some entrepreneurs. But the bottom line is that brands need to establish relationships with companies who own the distribution. Sometimes, acquisition is a path worth pursuing if it means your overall company vision can be realized.

-Brett Farmiloe, Markitors

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4. Second Degree Connections

No matter how small your town is, networking and connecting with the people around you is always the best way to find jobs, recommendations, non-profit groups, a babysitter, and hey maybe even a date! I live in a relatively small US town and the number of people in business here that both know each other and are successful is of high correlation. Playing “tradies” and offering up your services for low cost or a sample is a great way to open a door for a great business partnership. Start by introducing yourself and handing out business cards. See if there’s any way you can support them or them.

-Annika Ehrig, Whiteboard Geeks

5. Nail Your Branding

Getting the message of the product on point is key to getting recognized prior to any retail buyer meetings. Grow the brand both online and offline via the media channels that resonate with your product’s audience. Get your product on the map before you get your product into the store.

-Joe Flanagan, VelvetJobs

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6. Start Local and Network

Talk with business owners and create a demand in your community and encourage your customers to ask for it! Many entrepreneurs use farmer’s markets and more to really create a local and loyal customer base who will push your projects as well.

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7. Earned Endorsements

Earned endorsements make the best case for your product. Sampling small business owners and doing personal follow up is a great way to earn your way into a product mix, but sample carefully to make sure it is a good fit for the current inventory and “vibe” of the store. If you’re sampling a CBD cream to a pet store or a kitchen store, it will be a much harder sell.

-Amy Feind Reeves, JobCoachAmy

8. Trade Shows

The most reliable method is to attend a relevant trade show as an exhibitor. While this isn’t possible at the moment across most of the world, there are still opportunities to exhibit through virtual trade shows and connect with potential buyers and product distributors. In my previous career as a buyer, trade shows were the largest source of discovering new products and building relationships. I’d highly recommend exploring this avenue.

9. Pitch In Person or on LinkedIn

My best piece of advice to an entrepreneur that is looking to get their product into a store is to always make the pitch in person or on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a great way to get access to key decision-makers while avoiding the hassle of going through layers of corporate bureaucracy.

-Peter Babichenko, Sahara Case

This post was written by Brett Farmiloe and originated on SCORE. 

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