Recently a Web.com Small Business Forum member starting a footwear and handbags company asked, “How can I get interviews with buyers of [department stores] like Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Dillard’s?” To get the answer, I interviewed Adam Rizza, co-founder with his brother Wally of Sunscape Eyewear, a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of sunglasses and optical readers. Launched 20 years ago, the company now distributes its products nationwide via retail chains including Walmart, Nordstrom, Costco Canada and CVS drugstores.
“Shoes and handbags are very saturated,” cautions Rizza, who explains that the best way to entice a department store buyer is to either offer a well-known brand, a license or a product with technology behind it, such as a patent for a special feature or design.
Rizza recommends new entrepreneurs get their feet wet in distribution before reaching out to major department store chains. “Do some trade shows and get some exposure first,” he says. “Buyers won’t [meet with you] until they know what [other accounts] you’re selling to and there’s a buzz about your company.”
Exhibiting at a trade show sometimes attracts the attention of a department store buyer. If it doesn’t, Rizza advises finding a broker in your industry who can represent you to buyers. “The most strategically powerful way to approach a buyer is to find a broker that does business with them,” he explains. “Brokers have relationships and can get you in front of the buyer.”
Of course, this requires “selling” your concept to the broker—and, like buyers, brokers want to work with proven companies. “Brokers want to know your strength, distribution, factories,” Rizza says. “They won’t put their name on the line for you unless they know you can deliver.”
When you finally get that coveted appointment with a buyer, be prepared. “You have to understand their product, what your competitors are doing, and the [retailer’s] price points and margins,” Rizza says. “You could have an amazing product, but if your price points aren’t in line with what the retailer expects, you won’t have a chance.”
Rizza says Sunscape got into Nordstrom through its reputation and relationships. “Nordstrom knew we were already in Topshop, Urban Outfitters and other high-profile accounts,” he explains. That buzz made it easier for Sunscape’s broker to get an appointment.
Once you’ve built buzz and reputation, you can also approach buyers by sending product. “We still do this, and maybe one out of 10 gets a bite,” says Rizza. “We send special packages, nicely presented and boxed, to excite them and show that we’re players. We include information like our company one-sheet that tells them who we sell to.” The gist, he says, is “Hey, we sell to all your competitors. Let’s talk.”
Most of all, have patience (it took Sunscape eight years to get its products into Walmart) and get all your ducks in a row so that if you do land a big retail account, you can fulfill the orders. “Getting the business is half the battle—but managing and fulfilling it is harder,” Rizza warns. Since buyers all know each other and talk to each other, your reputation is on the line.
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