The ins & outs of working with a sales rep

by Nicole Morell of Honeybunch

working with a sales repYou’ve created a product, built a website, had a few sales and now you’re looking to get your product into some stores and really grow your business. So you send a bunch of email queries or maybe you visit some of your favourite stores in town and make your pitch to the manager. If you’re lucky you might have a few nibbles. But chances are, whether cold-calling gives you the chills or whether you could sell ice to Eskimos, you realize that there has to be a better way of getting in front of buyers and owners. Happily, there is: a sales rep.

Unlike distributors who buy your product outright (typically for 30% of your wholesale price), and then resell it to retailers, a sales rep buys nothing from you. Armed with product samples (to demo, not give away), sell sheets, merchandising ideas and anecdotal info on how the product is selling in other stores, a sales rep sells your product to the stores for you. A sales rep takes the sales function off your plate so you can focus on design, shipping and marketing.

But there is more to a good rep than simply knocking on a bunch of doors. Sales reps specialize in product categories, like baby/mom products, stationery, giftware, or toys. Their knowledge of the category is formidable. They know what sells and where. They know every competitive product in the category, every price point, best sellers, and also regional sales differences. What sells downtown is often subtly different than the suburbs. It’s critical knowledge that retailers rely on to make buying decisions, and once a store has a relationship with a good sales rep we’ll take their recommendations almost every time.

My favourite rep, Leeanne Bayley-Hay of Pickney Gear, sat down this week to talk with us about the ins and outs of working with a rep. I chose Leeanne because, as a store owner, I trust her instincts and value her opinion but also because she doesn’t work exclusively with big brands; Leeanne has a successful history of working with mompreneurs and helping bring new products to market.

How many stores do you have in your roster Leeanne?

I’m in contact with – and personally visit – 475 baby stores and gift boutiques across the province. I work exclusively with independent retailers.

That’s a lot of door-knocking. Is the cold-call the biggest headache you take off a brand’s hands?

It’s one of them, for sure. A person creates a new product but doesn’t necessarily have the experience or background as an entrepreneur or salesperson to get their product out in the marketplace. They know their product really well – the created it – but my expertise is in getting their product into the right store to help them grow their brand. I don’t want to sell a product once – I want repeat orders. And no one really likes cold calls – doing them or getting them. I make appointments with my stores as well as sending out regular email newsletters to stay in touch.

What else do you do?

I handle store inquiries and make sure stores have current ordering information – line sheets and order forms – on hand. I train store staff on product knowledge but also how to sell the product, as well as offer merchandising and display ideas. I receive and review sales orders and then follow-up with stores on sell-through.

How do you get paid?

I am paid 10% commission on the wholesale cost of the order. The brand pays me, not the store.

Can we talk about Ringley? Two years ago, Shaindy, the owner, dropped by my store unexpectedly to show me her invention: an organic, made in Canada teether. It hit all the right buttons: organic, locally made, good price. I immediately ordered and then told her she really needed to be in touch with you. I knew she had a winning product, but she needed a rep to do the door-knocking or it was going to take her a year just to hit all the Toronto baby stores. Do you remember how that conversation went?

It was a hard sell! I decided to do proposal to convince her that I really wanted to rep her line and I saw the potential. She eventually came around, and Ringley was an immediate and huge hit right across Canada.

I know we can’t discuss numbers, but is it safe to say there are thousands of Ringleys sold in the last year?

Yes, thousands. And Ringley has won several significant awards. She’s said hiring a rep was the best decision she’d made for her company.

Yet you have to be ready to work with a rep. What are the fundamentals that have to be in place before you will rep someone’s product?

  1. You must be able to run a credit card. Sales reps do not take payment – that is the company’s responsibility.
  2. Be reachable during business hours. You need a dedicated phone, email, fax line and website.
  3. You need liability insurance, plus proof of safety testing, if relevant, your product labels must adhere to federal/local standards. If you’re claiming to be organic I need to see certification.
  4. You should have your own order forms and web-ready images.
  5. Retail-ready packaging. Think about how your product is best displayed in different types of stores. Does it hang on a peg or sit on a shelf? Does it look appealing? Do you offer different types of packaging?
  6. Does your labeling or packaging communicate clearly what your product is, what’s special about it, how it’s used and why a consumer should buy it? Packaging and labels are the silent salespeople.
  7. What are your plans for new line development? Retailers expect a new product at least once a year. Seasonally is better. Whether it’s a new colour, smell, design. You need new to keep them interested.
  8. You need to have a marketing and media plan. Stores, just like consumers, want “hot” products that get media attention.

How does someone connect with a sales rep? Is there a trade association?

There isn’t a trade association but for the children’s market, check out James Girone, which is a good start. Ask around: ask stores for their best rep’s name. You should interview a sales rep and get references from both stores and other lines. There has to be a good fit for both sides.

9 comments

  1. Joanne says:

    Thanks so much for this topic. We need win win relationships like this. I long for an interested party to give me honest feedback push professional growth. I especially appreciate the “ready” list so I can get the loose ends in order before approaching a rep.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. I found it very helpful. I have a new product line that I am bringing to market and looking for the right Reps. So far I have one that is fantastic with great re-orders but on a small scale so now I am looking to expand in a thoughtful and consistent way. I am so Grateful to the internet for the amazing amount of resources. The question is, which do I use and where do I go? Reading this today helped to be focused…With Gratitude, Beth

  3. Tanya says:

    Thank you for the very informative article. I design and make hair accessories and sell them on Etsy and craft show. I’d like to start looking for retailers for my items, and consider using help of a good sales rep. Can you recommend someone?

  4. heather says:

    Great article, but the use of the word mompreneur makes me flinch. We are businesswomen, not a cutesy degrading title. No one would call a man who started a business a dadpreneur. Let’s give women the same respect.

  5. Melissa says:

    I am currently in the process of finding a good sales rep. I have a natural skin care company and have managed to get into several stores here locally, but with the added work and marketing efforts underway I can’t seem to get into more. My company is natural escapes. http://www.naturalescapesbody.com. I am also looking for other opportunities to sell wholesale. Please reach out if the products I handmake might be a good fit for an opportunity elsewhere.

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