We’ll take you step-by-step through everything you need to know when starting a business in Alberta.
Albertan entrepreneur shares what he’s learned about getting his product into retailers
By ATB Financial 19 March 2023 4 min read
You’ve put in the work to create a product that you’re proud of. You’re making sales, but you know that you can take things to the next level—you envision your product popping up at your favorite store. But you don’t know where to start.
You’re not alone. When Mike and Jamie of Calgary Heritage Roasting Co. (CHRC)—craft coffee roasters fueled by a love of the outdoors—were looking into retail sales, they had no idea either. But since launching in 2015, they’ve had lots of practice approaching and working with retailers to get their coffee in-store. And Mike is here to share what they’ve learned along the way.
The CHRC sales journey
Mike and Jamie started selling beans in November 2015 through their ecommerce website. “It’s pretty much impossible to start a cafe—a physical brick and mortar location—when you have no track record of sales or no idea what you’re doing,” Mike laughs. So ecommerce was the best way for them to get started and build credibility. With help of their first mentor, they got the site up and running in a month—selling to friends, family, and “anyone who’d throw in their credit card details.”
But what launched CHRC into the retail marketplace was getting out from behind the screens and into events. The duo picked up their first retailer when they were a vendor at Market Collective, what Mike would describe as a “curated, cooler farmers market featuring local handmade goods.” Attending events like these have been key for spreading the word about CHRC—now their beans are sold in retailers across Canada.
How do I approach a retailer?
Here are Mike’s steps:
1. When you’re looking to get into a specific store, call ahead and make sure the owner or category manager for your product is in-store. For big stores, they’ll probably have one person per category, otherwise it would be the store manager. Guaranteed nothing will happen unless you can speak directly to these people.
2. Try to set up a meeting (this probably won’t happen—these people are busy). But don’t let this discourage you.
3. Get a name and contact information for the category manager or owner, and then follow up, follow up, follow up and follow up! The amount of times I’ve been turned away is unreal. One of our retailers listed us a year after we first talked with them. We just kept following up, then they listed. You always want to be in the back of their mind, but continually improving your process and product in that in-between period.
4. When you finally get that meeting, you’ll need your sell sheet and your product (sample or full size) for them to take home and try. Your sell sheet should explain who you are, your differentiating factors, and include product shots, SKUs, units and prices. Essentially, make it easy for the buyer! Don’t have 10 emails back and forth—that will get you nowhere.
What you should know when approaching a retailer
Know your numbers. What does it cost you to make your product? What are your margins? What do you want your profit to be? What is your competition selling for, so you know what you’ll stand on the shelf? And ask about all of the added costs associated with that retailer, so you know what your margin is. “Just because we sold $1,000 worth of stuff, doesn’t mean you actually made that in profit—we had to learn that quickly.”
Know your differentiating factor. People will ask, ‘why would I spend $X to buy your stuff when I could get something at a lower price, or from this other brand?’ Be prepared to answer that question.
Recognize that the retail environment is a partnership. Know your worth and what you came to the table with, and how the retailer could help you help them. Build a positive relationship with retailers—meet them halfway. “We don’t think we’re too good or too big, we never act like we’re the smartest—we’re always asking questions about how we can do better,” shares Mike. “We do demos and samplings regularly in-store. Hopefully we’re in the store enough that people remember our faces and associate us with the product.”
The realities of getting your product in a retail space
“Initially, the process to get into a retail space was brutal. Every retailer is different, every category is different—there’s no silver bullet to this,” admits Mike. “Some retailers were easy to get into, others still haven’t let us in.”
“Honestly, it’s all about timing,” shares Mike. “You just do your best to prepare yourself and don’t ever give up. There are so many factors playing into getting into a retail space. Different product categories are treated differently, demographics determine which stores make the most sense to sell at (even within the same category), product cycles are different for each product type and store.”
Pros and cons of selling your product through a retailer, in Mike’s words
There’s no cooler feeling than walking into a store and seeing your product on the shelf. It’s so fulfilling, because that’s what we’ve wanted to do from the start.
Learning something new, it’s changing all the time.
Well, I’d say that the process is both difficult and discouraging, but to me those aren’t really cons! When stuff gets uncomfortable, lean in. If it was easy, everyone would do it. We have so much varying competition in our product category, it’s cool to see everyone’s niches and how we’ve made our own by pushing through.
Mike’s final three pieces of retail advice (in steps)
Step 1: Blindly lead with passion. Figure out who you are and what you want to do.
Step 2: Get a mentor who has experience in the field to challenge you and refine who you are.
Step 3: Pull the trigger. Just go for it, and keep going for it.