Welcome to Ask Shopify, a series where ecommerce experts tackle real questions from store owners who are trying to launch, build, and scale their stores. We’re here to help with every aspect of your store, from marketing to HR to accounting.
Who’s we? We’re the ecommerce experts both inside and outside of Shopify. Between our team, who spend all day immersed in the world of ecommerce (and who sometimes run stores themselves!) our squad of Shopify Experts, and our amazing customers, we have access to world-class expertise—and now you do too. So let’s dig in and get to your questions, because they’re good ones.
First of all, high fives that your customers love your stuff! That’s great, and something worth celebrating in and of itself.
Now you want to expand from ecommerce to retail, which is a great step—but not always a clear one, as you’re finding out. There are a lot of benefits to working with big, established retail brands: It can give you exposure to reach a far larger audience, you sell larger orders, and you don’t need to ship each product individually.
So how can you get there?
We asked Priscilla Tsai, CEO of Cocokind, to talk to us about her experiences doing exactly that. Cocokind is an all-natural, organic skincare line that’s sold in national retailers like GNC and Whole Foods. Priscilla and her team built this impressive national presence in under four years, and she shared how they grew their retail presence, and how you can do the same.
Differentiate your products
You know your products are unique, but when you’re pitching stores, it’s even more important to highlight what makes you different from everything else they currently carry.
“Everyone we spoke with noted that our products were really different from what they had on the shelves,” says Priscilla of her time pitching Cocokind’s products in person. It was that differentiation that helped them find early success getting stocked in local stores, and those stores spread the word.
“People in different stores eventually all sent in emails to the regional office saying ‘We want to bring in this brand’ to the point where they were open to talking to us because they’d heard so much about us from the people at the store level.”
Learn more: Merchandise planning tips from savvy ecommerce directors
To make sure everyone she spoke with remembered and understood what made Cocokind’s products stand out, Priscilla always made sure to emphasize three key things:
- Cocokind’s products have only five superplant ingredients or less
- They’re certified organic
- Their price point was under $20
Being able to quickly and succinctly tell people what makes your products different at a moment’s notice (and having strong product differentiation in the first place) was the key to Cocokind’s success in getting into stores early on.
Pitch in person (and be persistent)
When you’re just starting out, approaching stores you want to work with in person can be your best bet, and a strong strategy to build your retail presence.
“I just started knocking on doors, literally, and setting up meetings with people in the Bay Area,” says Priscilla. “At that time we were still focused on regional brands, so I basically went door to door, stopped by so many stores, and dropped off samples because they had buyers in each store. I made sure to leave them with products, and describe what we were doing and why.”
When you go into stores, be prepared to share your story, what makes you different, and why you think your products would be a great fit with the store’s existing customers and stocked items. And if you can’t get in touch with the right person, or they’re not working out of your local store? All is not lost.
“I would send out so many cold emails to buyers, and I remember we actually sent physical mail to buyers as well. We got a lot of replies too, mostly due to the product. I think the biggest thing is if you have a good product, that is just the number one thing.”
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Attend trade shows
If you’ve exhausted all of your local and regional options, and you want to connect with retail buyers who are looking for the Next Big Thing, trade shows are still one of the best ways to connect with buyers.
Priscilla is clear that trade shows should be incorporated into your strategy if you’re looking to make retail a big part of your distribution. And if you’re a bit nervous taking the leap into your first show, don’t be—Cocokind’s first show was one of their best.
“I don't think we've had a better show than our first one, because if you have a good product and you’re new, people are excited to discover you at the show. There was just so much excitement around our brand, and buyers were like "oh my god I've never seen this before" and "tell me all about it." It was just a very exciting show for us.”
If you want to have a similar first show, there’s some legwork you’ll need to do ahead of time.
“The key is knowing what shows to go to for your brand,” says Priscilla. “Knowing where your community of buyers gather is really important.”
At the end of the day, identifying those “right shows” for your business depends a lot of knowing your industry, and your place within it. For Cocokind, and Priscilla specifically, her personal interest in the natural products industry helped her identify where they’d have the most success in attending a trade show.
“I knew those trade shows because I had been before, sometimes just for my own enjoyment in meeting cool new natural and organic food brands. I was familiar with those shows before Cocokind, and as soon as we had a product we asked to be put on the waitlist to attend that trade show in March.”
If you can swing it, attending trade shows as an individual and scoping them out ahead of time can be a great way to decide which ones are a good fit. If not, asking around in your industry for people’s opinions on shows can also be a valuable source of information.
One thing to keep in mind is that attending a trade show as a person or as a brand isn’t free.
“I remember attending the show as a brand was like $4,500. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't had started gaining some traction in the first few months. Plus I didn't have money for a trade show right away, so we had to get sales first in order to pay for that. There's no harm in waiting if you're not funded, there's no harm in going door to door and sending samples and trying to see if you can get traction like that.”
Don’t just rely on your retail placements
It’s nice to think that getting stocked in a major retailer could be the big break your business is looking for, and a lot of times, it can be. But just because you’ve cleared the hurdle of getting your stuff on the shelves doesn’t mean your work is over.
“The thing about actually moving our product on their shelves is it takes more brand awareness than selling it on our own,” says Priscilla. “For the first two years we had so much success in terms of placement in stores, but not as much success in terms of really getting that demand. We were sitting on the shelves, but people still didn't know about us.”
"You can't rely on a store to sell your products for you."
“You can't rely on a store to sell your products for you. In a sea of products, you can't rely just being in the store and thinking people are going to find you there. Yes, it might happen sometimes if a customer in looking around trying to find something like your product, or if a store teammate recommends your product.”
So all the work you’re doing now, before you’re stocked in stores, to market your brand is setting up a foundation for your potential retail success.
“What’s interesting now is that we’re really starting to develop that brand awareness online and in social media, and now we can pretty much sell wherever and our customers will go to that store to search for us. So it’s a different process today than it was for us three years ago.”
A strong online presence might even be the thing that convinces those buyers you’re meeting with that it’s time to add you to their list of stocked brands. Even if you’re still working on getting your first placement, the community of happy customers you’re building and the brand you’re creating are going to be assets that serve you well either way.