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How to pitch and win deals with big retailers like Target, Whole Foods, Ulta Beauty from entrepreneurs who did it

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April Harris of dessert company Keeping You Sweet, Melissa Butler of The Lip Bar, and Gwen Jimmere of Naturalicious share several things in common: they are Black female entrepreneurs who have succeeded building businesses on their own, and they have succeeded in winning deals with national retail partners including Target, Ulta Beauty, Sally Beauty and Whole Foods.

Even with unique product ideas and passionate consumer bases, getting into the big retail stores wasn’t easy, and they have all learned valuable lessons, from pre-pitch research to post-pitch operations, on how to build a retail partnership that makes sense for a growing small business. They recently shared some of their early wins and misses, mistakes and hard-earned business wisdom, with CNBC.

Here are 9 lessons they want to share with entrepreneurs hoping to win a pitch with their dream retail partner.

1. If you aren’t a celebrity, bring proof of social media

April Harris, founder of New Jersey-based Keeping You Sweet, which makes gluten-free and vegan cheesecakes, says you need to do the research on your existing online presence if you have not already because for these partners it can be the major point of attraction. She started in local delivery and local Whole Foods and through the latter relationship was introduced to Amazon (Whole Foods’ parent company) representatives. Amazon mentors that were brought in to work with Whole Foods supply partners showed her search results related to her that she did not even know existed, thousands of searches for her name that piqued Amazon’s interest in a potential partnership.

2. Track social media by geography

3. Don’t go for it all, all at once

4. Be prepared to foot the bill for a while

5. Understand that a coveted deal can be a costly one

6. Don’t be intimidated, negotiate everything

In one of Jimmere’s early attempts to win a deal with a large retail partner she was told that negotiating was not allowed. “It’s not true,” she says, and she warns small brands to not get so overly excited about the scale of a potential partner that they accept terms which may weigh on their business.

“I think the biggest mistake people make is thinking they don’t have leverage,” Butler says. You have to pitch to a retail partner’s needs and their customer needs, and show how your brand will stand out in a saturated market, but “it’s not just about you doing everything they want you to do. … They took the meeting because you can potentially do something shape-shifting for them,” she says.

“Depending on the terms, you may not even make money on every sale, and I didn’t even know that in the beginning,” Jimmere says. “Do not let anyone tell you nothing is negotiable or get so excited about having your brand in a store that you forego profit in lieu of being able to have bragging rights. At the end of the day, what matters is that you can sustain the business,” she says.

There are many consumers who would never have heard of Naturalicious if partners like Ulta weren’t good about promoting brands in stores, and that can ultimately lead consumers to come back to your direct sales channel in the future. But Jimmere, whose company is now doing $2.4 million in sales, says getting into a big retail network is not necessarily going to result in a doubling or tripling of revenue immediately. Sometimes, a big advantage is the discovery your brand is able to add from the in-store customer experience, though that comes at a cost too: you don’t get the customer data that do through your direct channel.

7. Accept that the hardest part may be getting a meeting

For all the persistence in making calls and getting lucky with unexpected connections at industry events, several entrepreneurs said they have needed to work with a brokerage partner to break through with big retailers. Jimerre and Butler both worked with brokers who knew the big firms like Ulta and Target well and knew how and why their products could be sold into these channels.

Jimmere says persistence and networking can pay off. She made the calls herself to Whole Foods in her area and she met a key Ulta emerging brands division contact at an industry conference, but getting into Sally Beauty wasn’t working by just submitting to the company online. “Imagine how many pitches they get. The stuff goes into a black hole most of the time.”

When Butler first made the decision to pursue retail partners she directly reached out to a lot of buyers, but says now it was not necessarily the best way to go. “Things do get lost and they get lots of pitches,” she says. Butler found that working with an external sales group was the most effective way of breaking through with a retailer like Target because of the trust already established as an agent placing brands with the company. Even though there is a cost to that middle-man relationship, “They will get you in front faster, and they should get paid for their work,” she says.

Those brokerage deals can be based on a percentage of sales or a retainer, but both Jimmere and Butler said working with brokers who understand these retail partners and are passionate about how their products fit into these companies plans, has been a key part of growing partnerships.

8. Walk the aisles, know the partner before pitching

Harris says it took Keeping You Sweet about three months to break through on her own with Whole Foods, and she started with one store in Newark, New Jersey. She said walking the aisles and learning the web site of a Whole Foods, or whatever dream retailer you want to be in, is critical before a first pitch if you are going it alone.

Her products are designed for gluten intolerance, which is a huge market linked to many medical conditions, as well as for people that need to avoid refined sugar, like diabetics, and those allergic to egg or dairy or choosing vegan as a lifestyle, in the case of her vegan cakes. But none of those consumer and health advantages would have been an advantage at Whole Foods if they already had a competitor offering the exact same products.

“Go into the store before you pitch them. The first thing is to make sure it is something they need or don’t already have in store, or are not even thinking about,” Harris says.

Businesses need to tailor the pitch to the nuances and goals of the retail partner. Whole Foods and Ulta Beauty, both of which Jimerre sells through, have completely different consumer goals in mind. Ulta is looking for “prestige, if not luxury,” she says, which ends up in details like Naturalicious packaging having shiny gold caps. Whole Foods is very big on supporting local businesses, and the best ways into its supply chain are at first to think small, before ever contemplating regional or national deals with it or its parent company Amazon.

9. Save even more than you think you will need


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