By Faye Nwafor
During an entrepreneurship event in New York, hosted by Macy’s and Project Enterprise, I had a chance to interview several women and minority small business owners about what it takes to successfully get big department stores to carry the products of small businesses. The women were delightful and eager to share their personal secrets to building profitable relationships with retail behemoths. They were so helpful, I was able to compile a list of their top strategies.
1. Ask yourself if you can afford to wait for payment. Many small businesses like to get paid on delivery or within a few days. Vera Moore, President and CEO of Vera Moore Cosmetics says entrepreneurs need to realize that a major retailer can require 30-90 days after receipt of your goods to make payment. If you can weather those payment terms, move forward, if not,”don’t do something if you’re not ready,” she says.
2. Package to retailer specifications. Top department stores require special tags and sometimes specific label positioning before they allow new products on their floor. Cheryl Monroe, VP Supplier Diversity and Vendor Development for Macy’s advises prospective vendors to “know the brand.” Ms. Monroe encourages prospective suppliers to know the retailer’s focus by reading their annual reports and familiarizing themselves with the store’s customers and business. She points out that vendors who do not send goods according to her company’s specifications are charged if her team has to correct the tags themselves. Ms. Moore, who’s cosmetics firm has had success selling her products nationally in dainty bags, says she has invested $60,000 to have her cosmetics boxed according to Macy’s requirements.
3. Build your brand before approaching big retailers. Deborah Williams, President and CEO of Her Games 2, an apparel and talent firm in Connecticut, says it is important to market your brand and cross promote before and after approaching big retailers. “Nobody does marketing better than we do,” she says. Her promotion tactics include producing fashion shows for communities in her target market. When approaching big retailers she says it is important to “bring something to the table.” Ms. Williams says she likes to use her marketing and event know-how to drive traffic to the stores that carry her products for in-store events.
4. Leverage your talents. Traci Copeland, Co-Founder of clothing company Wildchild Nation, says it is important to spend money wisely. She points out that when your goal is to meet and impress buyers, costly trade shows and other big ticket expenses like office space need to be re-evaluated. “Till recently, we worked in my partners apartment,” she says. Ms. Copeland says she uses her skills as a former model and dancer to pose in photographs with friends for the company’s look book. Her business partner Marc does their photography.
5. Build relationships first. Before selling your products to big retail its important to know your prospective corporate buyers and to let them get to know you. This takes time and is an important step because as Ms. Moore suggests, “Entrepreneurs are not patient.” At least they are not known for having this trait. But they will need to be to utilize tip#6.
6. Be patient. Ms. Copeland says that vendors must have patience to do business with large retailers. “[Retailers] want to see new designs every 4-6 weeks,” she says. One must also balance, what she calls, when not to seem too pushy and when to follow up. Overall she advises showing progress in your collection and constantly building your business outside of your big retail goals.
7. Trust your buyers. At the department store level, entrepreneurs who wish to become vendors can benefit from being walked through the process by their buyers. Ms. Moore says shes benefited from being able to listen and take constructive criticism, even though her company has been around for years.
8. Make sure you are financially capable of taking an order. An order for 5,000 jackets that you need sent from your manufacturer in China could cost $50,000. Be sure you can deliver on such an order before agreeing and make sure it is not a late order. Women selling to big retail agree its important to be honest with yourself about your ability to handle these types of accounts before you start. You want to maintain your company’s reputable name and create a track record of meeting your orders. As Ms. Moore says, “If you’re not ready, say no, thank you. Otherwise, if you do it wrong, when you are ready, they wont want you. It’s an art to walk away when you’re not ready.”