The Biggest Mistake Food Startups Make When Pitching to a Major Retailer

In the hyper-competitive landscape of retail food and beverage, challenges are ubiquitous for buyers and food manufacturers alike. For retail buyers, continually selecting new products that will consistently sell in the longer term requires both expedient yet accurate assessments. On the flip side, brand owners must stand out against the plethora of other companies that are actively pitching or already selling on store shelves.

Coming up with the hottest new product is only the first step on the road to success for food entrepreneurs. Getting over the “hump” requires a mass distribution channel, which translates to getting picked up by major retailers such as Whole Foods. This is no trivial feat, and most brand owners are unaware of the patience required to win a contract. As every successful food entrepreneur knows, pitching your product to a big-box retailer often comes with a painfully long sales cycle that can last as much as 7-9 months from initial pitch to first shipment. Of course, most newcomers also walk into their first meeting with limited knowledge of how the pitching process works. With careful planning and a robust execution plan, however, there’s tremendous opportunity for even small brand owners like food startups to jump ahead of the competition and get their products in the hands of millions.

Firstly, it’s absolutely imperative that you have a physical product in hand at your meeting. This one is obvious, but most first-timers don’t realize that bringing a sample isn’t geared towards someone trying your product. Veterans of the food manufacturing industry will tell you that an overwhelming majority of the time, nobody during the pitch asks to actually taste test the product! While this sounds counterintuitive, the committee that’s ultimately responsible for reviewing a prospective product is focused on one thing and one thing only: will your product sell off its store shelves? Retailers, particularly larger ones like Target or Costco, understand consumer psychology and that retail purchasing decisions are usually made within seconds. Shoppers don’t have an opportunity to sample products in the aisle before making their selection, and thus buy squarely based on visual appeal. This doesn’t mean you should present or pitch a product that looks or tastes mediocre. Instead, put yourself in the shoes of a review committee and actively critique your product from their vantage point. Ask yourself this –  how you can present your product in a way that would draw someone to it amidst tens or hundreds of others, pick it up, and put it in their shopping cart?

The answer: how it’s packaged. Of the 95% of consumer-facing products that fail within their first year of launch, poor or overlooked packaging is almost always a leading cause. Adequate packaging not only serves the functional purpose of safeguarding and maximizing your product’s shelf life, but it’s generally the only differentiator between you and the competition in the eyes of shoppers.

Figuring out packaging for your product starts with an honest assessment of the product itself and deciding what kind of package would be fit-for-purpose. How vulnerable is your product to oxidation or moisture ingress? Does it require greater than normal odor protection? How sensitive is your product’s shelf life to light?  Only after zeroing in on technical requirements such as size, barrier, and material requirements can you begin to design your package from an aesthetics standpoint.

Finally, you have to consider logistics and packaging supply chain to determine how everything will come together. How much empty, ready-to-be-filled packaging should you have on hand at a time? If you use a contract packager, how much of that packaging will they store for you? Will you you’re your own warehousing for efficient transport to your co-packer at moment’s notice? Big-box retailers are notorious for strict delivery deadlines and impose hefty fines every day a shipment is delayed. When trying to develop a packaging supply chain plan, remember that what you pay your packaging supplier is only a portion of your total costs associated with product packaging.

Starting out small isn’t a disqualifier for making it big in the food business. Ultimately, winning in sales comes down to concisely yet effectively conveying your brand’s message to would-be buyers – regardless of whether you’re selling food or heavy machinery. In the context of retail, make sure you have a reliable partner who can guide you from start to finish when it comes to designing, sourcing, and managing your product packaging so you can stand out against the crowd.

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