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Making The Climb Onto Store Shelves

Trying to get a new product onto the shelves at drugstores and supermarket chains is a bit like tackling Mount Everest—the mountain will be there whether you climb it or not. Product buyers—a manufacturer's only path to store shelves—have little time, less shelf space, and lots of competition for their attention. It's easy for buyers to stick with established sellers, making the climb difficult for any new product. I found this out firsthand when I sought retail space for my firm's first product. Unlike bulky, plastic-coated "briefs" or diapers for incontinent adults, our Rejoice product is more like traditional underwear—a reusable cotton pant combined with state-of-the-art absorbent material.

Our market research showed that there were 3 million to 5 million adults who refused to wear the available products. To succeed, Caring Products International, the Seattle-based company I founded with a partner in 1992, needed to convince product buyers of the need for a markedly new incontinence product and of our ability to reach both the existing market and those people who were limiting their activities rather than wearing the products already on store shelves. Today our 40-employee company is projecting sales of $10 million for the current fiscal year. It has stocking arrangements with some of the largest chain stores. The lessons to be learned from our success are valuable to any manufacturer trying to gain shelf space:


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• Establish an organization of brokers or manufacturers' representatives. Using representatives to market your product is a highly cost-effective way to introduce your pi'oducts to buyers. The larger and more respected the broker, the better.

• Be prepared. Once a buyer says "No," it's over until the chain names a new buyer or your other successes force the chain to reconsider. So it's crucial that you come in with a strong, well-prepared presentation that sells your product and does it quickly. For us, convincing buyers required more than just the standard business presentation; we needed testimonials from people dissatisfied with the available products in order to demonstrate the need for an alternative.

• Use vour differences to vour advantage. The majority of buyers I met had never opened a package of adult diapers before our meeting. Until we showed them the existing products and then ours, they couldn't fully appreciate why Rejoice is different and could help their business.

• Know the store. Visit a chain's stores to see the products sold in your category. Determine where your goods would fit on the shelf and whether floor displays are possible. Arrive at the sales call armed with information provided by your broker, ranging from data on competition and pricing to local demographies and the store's sales priorities.

• Listen to the buyer's needs, and make reasonable counterproposals. If the buyer likes your product, but at a cost for store entry that could break your budget, don't despair. Try instead to determine what the company expects from the buyer—what he or she really needs to get from you. By determining this, you have a better chance of countering with a win-win proposal.

Given the demands of their jobs, product and service buyers today find their time for evaluating market trends and customer needs is constantly shrinking. Identifying those needs and how your product addresses those concerns or a specific market gap can make the difference between reaching the top and staying at ground level.

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