Landing a spot in the major retailers

Your Ready Business caught up with Guy Blaskey, one of the five winners of the Ready Business Mentor Scheme who won a mentorship with www.notonthehighstreet.com’s founder Sophie Cornish. As an entrepreneur and founder of Pooch & Mutt, an award-winning and ethical dog food brand, Guy shares how he navigated the highs and lows of getting his products stocked in major UK retailers such as Waitrose, Pets at Home and Amazon.

For many small businesses getting stocked by a large supermarket is the dream, but many of them don’t fully understand how the process works or what it involves. It’s complicated and hard-fought, and it’s not good enough just to have a strong product.

Supermarkets do not have never-ending shelves, so in order to stock your product they have to remove someone else’s to make room. The item in the firing line might be a major brand with a proven track record, so you must do more than convince them that your creation works.

Essentially, you have to go into a meeting with a buyer understanding their needs. What are their chief concerns and how can you make their job easier? Are you able to make them look good in front of their superiors and can you put a case forward that you can improve what is already there?

Setting up a meeting with a buyer is comparatively easy if you have something that is selling well independently, but delivering a dynamite pitch, being flexible enough to adapt to each buyer’s unique needs and, crucially, maintaining your place on the shelf, is all a different story.

Having a unique selling point is a good start

Our product range has a strong place in the market, it fulfils a need and it is different to our main rivals. In 2008, when the business launched a formula for dogs that helped improve their joints. My own dog had developed a disorder and we used a formula created for horses to treat the condition.

It worked brilliantly. We were told at the time that our dog would need a hip replacement in three months. Nine years later and the operation has not been necessary. We took the formula, marketed it to dog owners, and about five years ago created a range of dog treats with active health benefits.

They were a huge success. Pet owners are growing more aware of animal nutrition and we were coming from a position that food is either medicine or poison, so we were creating medicine.

In the early years we knew it was important to keep close contact with our customers. They told us they wanted an everyday pet food with the same properties, so we started the process again.

There were a few foods on the market billed as joint-friendly but they are made mainly from wheat, with a bit of chicken added. ‘Chicken’ varieties can have as little as 4% meat, which isn’t great for dogs who are essentially carnivores.

We knew that to make a good food for joints we would have to use salmon, which is very high in Omega 3 oils and is food a dog could eat happily. We added naturally occurring health supplements and created five varieties.

Again it was a great success. We had already entered several big retail multiples such as Waitrose and Whole Foods, so we had experience, but even bigger more established brands have to work hard to keep their products on the shelves.

Our pitch was all about consumers’ changing preferences. Sugary breakfast cereals have given way to Dorset muesli, premium tea pigs have taken a chunk out of budget teabags and colourful squash is being eroded by natural cordials. We said that the pet food category was also due a shake-up.

Winning the pitch

As a small business we found we had advantages and disadvantages in talking to supermarkets. One disadvantage came when a chain agreed for us to replace a major supplier. When they heard what was happening they offered a large amount of money for promotions and reversed the decision – we couldn’t compete with that.

But when we were stocked at Waitrose, they asked us to pack our food in six-by-one units, which would help them get more on the shelves. As the owner of a small agile business I could say immediately that it was possible and implement the decision right away.

What really surprised me was the challenge of keeping products on the shelves once they are there. Businesses are battling for space and they were targeting us from day one. We sought the advice of some experienced entrepreneurs and they coached us for six months on how to deal with the pressure.

Other aspects surprised us. Supermarkets will phone you up and tell you you’re going on offer. They say how much additional product they need as well as how much it will cost you. You don’t realise that they have revenue streams other than what they sell, but they do. It’s a shock at first.

My best advice to small businesses hoping to be stocked in large chains is look out for ‘buyer days’, which are formal events set up to connect supermarkets and potential suppliers. It’s important to learn beforehand what a buyer wants and know who you would replace on the shelf.

If successful, be prepared to go on a steep learning curve. There is no option to standstill; someone is always fighting for your space. It’s not impossible, small businesses like ours are proving you can get your product into big retailers, go and make it happen.

You can follow @poochandmutts #ReadyBusinessMentor story at www.readybusinessbritain.co.uk/mentoring