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Field Marketing Certification

Building Strong Retailer Relationships

Note: This is the final video for the course

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Expert Q&A


One thing that separates all-star field marketers from their peers is the relationships they've formed with the store managers they've worked with. For one, it can give reps flexibility while performing in-store demos. But perhaps even more importantly, field marketing reps who build a reputation of trust with retailers will be able to find opportunities to increase their brand's visibility in the store.

In this lesson, Tom First, co-founder of Nantucket Nectars and emerging beverage investor, shares his secrets for not only building a rapport with retailers, but also for making the most out of those relationships.


Presenter: Tom First, Emerging Food Brands Investor

Tom First is an Operating Partner at Castanea Partners, where he focuses on opportunities in branded food andbeverage. Before moving into theinvestment space, Tom co-founded Nantucket Nectars, an award-winning juice company which sold to Cadbury Schweppes PLC in 2002.

A serial entrepreneur, Tom also founded O Beverage, which was sold to Polar Beverages. Tom is a director on the boards of Essentia Water, Jeni’s Ice Cream and Yasso.

What's the most important thing for field marketing reps to keep in mind as they learn to work with retailers? 


First and foremost, having a recognition that a retailer's store is their place of business is extremely important. I was a retailer; I owned a store for a long time. The fact that 50 different sales reps and merchandisers and delivery people are walking in and out of their store everyday is something that’s very important for a rep, a marketing person, a sampler, or a salesman to understand is critical.

So the cardinal sin is to walk into the door and walk right to your own product to see what you look like or to start touching the shelf. Because, frankly, that store is that retailer’s business and it’s not your place to go and touch the shelf without speaking to the retailer first, shaking their hand, introducing yourself, and then asking permission to go look at the shelf and see what’s going on in their store.

I always tell people to walk in the door, go and find the business owner, present yourself in a very nice way; introduce yourself, your company and then, with permission, go either start looking at the shelf or merchandising the shelf. I think that’s very important for anyone who’s walking in and out of stores. It earns you a lot of respect and it sort of sets the tone for the work you might do that day in the store.


How can field marketers take their store visits to the next level? 


The second thing I think that's really important with respect to making a call is having a sense of recognition of what's going on in a store. If you've been selling long enough, if you've gone in and out of enough stores, you learn ways to recognize an environment. And by recognizing an environment, you then learn how to communicate with that retailer.

For me, over many years of doing this, there were many cues that enabled me to understand what type of retailer I was speaking to. Examples are looking at pricing, looking at product selection, looking at how the shelf is merchandised, cleanliness, etc. If you keep an eye on these factors, you can learn about 85-90% about that retailer and that store within three minutes of walking through the door.

A store that's meticulously cleaned should tell you that if you’re about to set up a sampling in the store or do a demo, you better be careful about where you are in that store, how you treat their store and their products, how clean you are, how important it is to clean up when you’re done.

I knew that if stuff was a mess that I could go redo their whole shelf and take a bunch of shelf space. But I also knew that if stuff was meticulous then this was a retailer who was going to be very hard for me to move stuff around; I was going to have to work hard to get an extra slot or an extra shelf. So developing those recognition patterns will help you approach the retailer the right way the first time, rather than making a mistake. Because one mistake with a retailer, pushing them too hard or using up too much of their time, can destroy the entire account call or could destroy your entire day. 


How can field reps for emerging brands work to get their products into new accounts?


As a new brand, you should quickly look aound the store to see where your product would fit in, what other products there are in your category, or opportunities you see on the shelf that could be in your category but differentiated from what you’re trying to sell.

And then maybe another thing to do is to look around and see in other categories outside of the category that your product exists, to see if this is a retailer that seems to bring in emerging-type brands or new products.

So, you’ll understand how difficult the battle is if you're walking into a store and seeing all sort of main-line, big-company products as opposed to walking into a store where perhaps they have tried some newer products in another category, because that could be a great thing. If you know that a new product, for example like Kind Bar, came in and competed with the typical bar products in the account, and you're a beverage company walking in, you can say something like, “Hey look, I’ll bet when you first brought Kind Bar in here you didn't think it would do much. But look at how much it’s helped your business”.

And the first people that brought in a product like that looked like innovators. You sort of make a retailer feel good about being the leading retailer to bring in something that's doing well. I always like to use an example of other stores that have brought you in and been successful.

At Nantucket Nectars the first people who ever brought in the product in the Boston area or around Nantucket or in Washington D.C. were always proud that they had been sort of the pioneers of Nantucket Nectars. In fact, to this day they still talk about it. So that’s an opportunity to present to a retailer.

But again, analyze the store. Understand how this retailer sees if you're in the beverage category/the beverage industry, and look at how they have brought in sort of innovative products in different categories, and see whether there's an opening for you.


How should field marketing reps approach retailers to increase their brand visibility? 


When you're walking into a store and you’re looking to either expand your positioning or get a better shelf, one way is to help retailers optimize their existing stock on the shelf.

Help store managers find ways to get rid of products that aren't selling quite as well in their store and then give them the opportunity to put your product in the store that might be selling better than that product.

If you‘ve got time, offer to help organize their shelves a little bit better, either based on category or flavor type. A lot of times I would walk into stores and see shelves where there was coconut water here and coconut water there, or sports drinks here and here and here, and I would literally offer to redo their entire shelf set so that all the products were in the right place. In doing so I would somehow find and extra shelf or two for my product.

Offer yourself up as a consultant to the retailer. One example I used to give a lot to retailers was, I used to tell them - I’m giving away trade secrets right now - that their shelves were basically apartment buildings that they were renting and the products on the shelf were tenants paying rent. But just being on the shelf was not paying rent, that was squatting. Coming off the shelf was paying rent.

Honestly a lot of retailers weren't thinking that way. They were thinking about what they bought to bring in rather than about how quickly it was moving off the shelf. And when you start to explain to them that they’re a landlord, and they’re being paid by how quickly stuff moves off their shelf, they start to think about how to get the stuff off their shelf that’s not moving as quickly and to expand the shelf space for products that are moving quickly. Hopefully, your product is moving quickly and you deserve to be on the shelf and help them pay the rent.