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Get Your Product to Retailers and Distributors

My cousin and I are starting a line of skin care products and have been sending samples to potential retailers and distributors. We've found that the overwhelming information on the Internet makes it hard to decipher good sales leads. Is there a route to reach legitimate business opportunities other than online? —M.P., Southern California

As you've found, trying to contact every retailer and distributor you identify online can exhaust your time and budget. "It's hard to sift the real prospects from the tire kickers who just want your free samples," says Barry Trailer at CSO Insights, a sales strategy and optimization firm based in Larkspur, Calif. Your challenge is to find ways to narrow the pool of sales prospects so your efforts are not aimed at everyone who sells skin care products, but at those most likely to sell your products.

Start by drawing up an "ideal sales fingerprint," says Ron Hubsher, CEO of the Sales Optimization Group, a New York business that does sales and sales negotiation training. "Identify the attributes of a client who's likely to be a great long-term customer of yours," he says. How many stores does this client have? How much sales volume do they do? Are they in your product or customer category? Do they work with smaller companies? Are they willing to buy from a startup company? Be as specific as possible.

Next, go the opposite direction and write down the profile of a client that would be an unacceptable sales prospect. "You'll have to do some research, but the time you spend will be rewarded far more than the time, effort, and money you're currently spending sending out a million e-mails and samples," Hubsher says.

Finding Industry Leaders

Once you know what kinds of clients you do and don't want, get a handle on the top players in your field and figure out which of them best fit your profile. You can identify industry leaders by reading industry trade journals, talking to independent skin care sales representatives, or hiring a marketing firm that has a track record qualifying leads in your industry, says Dan Kleinman, whose Dan Kleinman Consulting in Northern California advises on sales. "Some of the smaller marketers will work on a fee based on sales secured," he says. Just remember, "they don't sell the product; they only find and qualify leads."

A lower-tech—and lower-cost approach—is to visit local beauty shops, spas, and skin care boutiques. "Let them try your products and at the same time ask the proprietors who their suppliers are," says Craig James of Sales Solutions in Bayside, N.Y. "If they like your product, they'll probably contact their suppliers to recommend they contact you, so they can make arrangements to start carrying your line. Ask them for a contact name there. You want the opportunity to pitch them directly."

After about three dozen site visits, you're likely to hear a handful of distributors' names consistently. "These are the ones you'll want to reach out to. They've proven themselves to be dependable business partners for their retailers," James says. If you can get friends and relatives in other parts of the country to go through the same process, you'll have a solid, national list of distributors and retailers you can match up against your ideal client profile.

"By the end of this process, you'll have assembled a good stable of high-quality distributors and retailers who want to carry your products, without ever having to sift through the overwhelming amount of information online," James says.

Pitching Your Products

Make sure to develop a sales pitch based on the economic benefits of carrying your products. How is your product line going to enhance sales, improve profits, and result in new customers for your prospects? "A lot of entrepreneurs love their products, so they jump into the product sale details without addressing the top-line benefits first," Hubsher notes. Once you've persuaded a retailer or distributor that there's a good reason to carry your products, you can hand out samples and talk about the specifics of your line.

Keep meticulous track of your efforts using spreadsheets or sales software. "A relatively new area of sales enablement technology is lead management systems or marketing automation. These systems allow you to define different [follow-up] paths based on the actions of your e-mail recipients and Web site visitors," Trailer says. His research on startups shows that nearly two-thirds of top performers (where 60% or more of sales representatives met or beat their quotas) use such systems, he says.

And don't get discouraged if your efforts take longer than you anticipate. "The skin care business is a highly competitive market, and it is difficult to break in when there are so many companies and products competing for retail shelf space," says Phil Glosserman, author of Sell the Feeling.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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