How To Sell To Whole Foods

“Whole Foods will make me rich.”

We often see this basic assumption when we’re asked to look over the sales and marketing plans of start-up ventures. Understandably, many first time entrepreneurs tend to overestimate buyer enthusiasm for their idea and underestimate the costs and time involved in moving a product into the market place. Here are a few basic tips gleaned from sales experts that will help you sell into Whole Foods.

Tip One – Be Ready

Don’t make a sales call until you are clearly ready to launch, however, getting buyers’ reactions and opinions on a concept is a great idea. Buyers know the market. They can tell you what’s selling and they are, in fact, your first customer, so informal market research through conversations with in-store buyers and distributors is smart. But trying to make a sale with a half-baked mock-up is a waste of everyone’s time.

Tip Two – Ingredients Matter

Whole Foods cares about ingredients. If they don’t like what’s in your product, they won’t sell it. Labels also need to be designed to meet FDA specifications.  Make sure your label is to code and you have a functioning bar code. Here’s a list of the “bad stuff” Whole Foods won’t sell.

Tip Three – Understand Your Pricing Strategy

We had a client who developed a super-premium, environmentally righteous product. It was fantastic but the ingredients were neither easily nor cheaply sourced. The founders figured out their cost of goods but did not figure in the additional distributor and broker costs involved in the sale. When the product hit the shelf they faced the unpleasant dilemma of either losing money on every sale or cringing at the sky-high price after the distributor and retail mark up. Whole Foods will add 35.4% to the wholesale cost.  If you can’t land on a competitive price that makes you a profit, think twice about launching.

Tip Four – Know the Playing Field

By the time you’re ready to launch, you should have have a crystal clear understanding of your product position.  A position answers three basic questions.
1. What is it?
2. Who is it for?
3. Why should I buy it?

A good brand and package will answer these at a glance, and you should be able to tell the story in a well tuned, “elevator pitch.” It’s also important to be very clear about where your product will live. Does it go in dairy, body care, produce, grocery? Is it a snack item? Each department has its own specific buyer. You need to find the right buyer for your product and understand that person’s turf.  Here’s a list of the product categories.

•  Grocery, which includes dry goods, dairy, frozen, & general merchandise
•  Nutrition, which includes supplements and personal care
•  Prepared Foods
•  Produce
•  Meat
•  Seafood
•  Specialty, which includes cheese, beer, & wine

Tip Five – Follow procedures

Buying is done at the regional level and each region has different review procedures. You need to find your regional office and track down the category-specific buyer for that region. That person will tell you what will be required in terms of information, product samples and presentation opportunities. Sounds easy right? In fact, getting the key decision maker on the phone and scheduling a pitch can be a very long and arduous process. This is where an experienced sales person who knows their way in, and can navigate the system, will be an extremely valuable asset.

Tip Six – Be Local

Whole Foods makes a concerted effort to support local vendors. They have a well established “Local Producers” loan program and a designated position at store level called “Food Forager.” This person is responsible for identifying local products. This may be a fast track in if you can get the attention of the “Food Forager” for your local Whole Foods and work with them to get placement in your neighborhood store. Whole Foods makes the “we buy local” claim. Hold them to it! Here’s more information on the program.

Tip Seven – Have Your Web Act Together

Buyers these days do a lot of their research online. Before you make the call, have your website up and consider the wholesale buyer as your target audience. Have great visuals of people sampling the product at promotional events. If you have the product in the market, show it on the shelf. Show examples of display options. Build a community of real fans. You can offer links specifically for buyers that offer PDF sell sheets, and sales manager contact information. Buyers want to see a strong brand from a real company that can consistently deliver a quality product.

Tip Eight – Be Ready and Willing to Offer Support

It’s one thing to get on the shelf; it’s another to stay on it. Buyers want products that sell and they want to know what you intend to do to make sure your product will. Discounts, coupons and demos are a part of the package which buyers will expect you to provide.  Don’t forget to figure these marketing pieces into your budget.  And don’t promise anything you can’t deliver!

Tip Nine – Build a Sales Story First

This may well be the most important tip of the bunch. It’s a lot easier to sell something if you can show it’s already selling. Coming to the sales meeting armed with existing figures and accounts helps. There are a lot of good reasons to start smaller than Whole Foods. The main one lies in the fact that independent groceries, coffee shops and farmers markets are simply easier to approach. The key contacts are more accessible and the sales and distribution logistics are simpler. What’s more, the smaller venues can provide a valuable testing ground where you can gather direct consumer feedback and fine tune your concept before moving into the big-time. Whole Foods buyers, most likely, will give you only one chance. Best not to take it until you’re confident you can make the most of it.