How to pitch your ethical brand to retailers
My first [now-cringey] email to Komodo, in February 2015, was my first step onto the 12 stages of retail buying:
- Imposter's syndrome.
- I'm broke, I've failed, this was a horrible idea.
- A little success with a BIG celebratory dance.
- Pitches start trickling in, you want to buy everything.
- Pitches start pouring in, you can't respond to all of them.
- All my emails are pitches, make it stop make it stop make it stop.
- What’s name of that one brand from months ago?
- Nevermind, my phone pinged...and these dresses are DOPPPPE.
- A spreadsheet? Eeesh. Okay, I'll go over it with Sara.
- Hey Sara, I wanted to show you -- ah, nevermind, can't find it.
- Yeah, nevermind, Mata just released their holiday collection, [adds to cart x108).
- We're good for autumn, let's catch up on accounts.
It blew my mind that brands, who were bigger and more successful than we were, thought we were a multi-tiered company. As if we had a full-time buyer creating detailed vision boards. It was just me. Full stop.
Most boutique retailers are in the same boat. Owners wear several hats, and we wear the "buying hat" once a week, once a month, or once a season. Still, you (the brand) and I (the retailer) each have something the other wants. You want my money. I want a desirable product.
Help me give you my money.
Most of my wholesale purchases were on Etsy Wholesale. I know, I know. Etsy is on Etsy's side, not small business’. They've gone from being an invaluable marketplace for artisans to a publicly-traded baddie.
The biggest complaint of Etsy sellers: FEES.
It's just. . . ah, you know. . . from my perspective, Etsy Wholesale make the buying process SO easy. They already have my card info, my shipping and billing addresses, order history, and killer search algorithms. In fact, I'd rather pay 3.5% more to cover your fees than do a wire transfer. And you know what? Sometimes, I have to pay fees anyway, because I’m paying with credit, not debit.
In addition, I can place a mid-season order without the back-and-forth on available styles and quantities via spreadsheet, with the off-chance I'll top-up my order with some of last season's items. Imagine sitting on a handful of purses for a year, then having a new retail account buy them all in one go.
Of course, I don't expect everyone to flock to Etsy Wholesale. In fact, their most valuable feature is the “guest pass,” which allows non-members to view and purchase from your linesheet. It’s great for Etsy because they charge fees from sales to non-members. But, if you’re using your guest pass more often than being found through an organic search, then it's time to build your own trade platform that's adjacent to your retail site. Shopify offers plug-ins to register wholesale customers, and clever Squarespace users can create a password-protected page.
If you’d like me to go in-depth on wholesale e-commerce, tell me in the comments. This is meant to be a summary, and I’m intimately aware it’s more complicated than just build a damn website. Inventory management, VAT, and invoicing require a lot more information.
Keep it Concise
Are you a scroller? I'm a scroller. I always scroll through an email before reading it to assess how much time it'll take me to read. If it's a dense mountain of words, I'll probably read it later (spoiler: I usually don't).
Keep a "cold call" email around 100 words. Start with the buyer's name (usually the shop owner), then go straight into why they should stock your stuff.
I'm already an ethical fashion retailer, so your story about why you started your brand, to me, sounds like everyone else's story (no offense, I'm sure it's a great story). Give me something I can't find out from your website.
Greetings from Chicago!
My name is Brittney, and I'm the sales manager for La-Dee-Da Clothing. I'm writing because I think you'll agree that we're a great fit for your store. Our retail customers are between 25 and 35, with 60% living in cosmopolitan areas. Judging by your price point, as well as MadeFAIR’s flair for monochrome, our styles will match perfectly!
For further reading, I’ve attached our linesheet. If you'd like to skip all the small talk, here's a direct link to our trade website: ladeeda.com/wholesale. (Password: ladeeda2017).
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this email, and I'll check-in again in a week!
BAM! 106 words.
Offer more than just your products. In my example above, “Brittney” offered me insight into who her customers are – my guess would be young, urban professionals with disposable income -- and gestures to her clothing already selling at retail cost. That's a big deal. If your main income is wholesale, then client retention (re-orders), best-sellers, and regional exclusivity can be part of your pitch. A brick and mortar in Denver probably won't stock your products if you already have 5 stocklists nearby. However, if you don’t, but 10% of your online customers live there, then it's on like Donkey Kong.
Maybe you don't have percentages and stats (get them), or perhaps you don't feel comfortable sharing them (get over that). Another option is to find the retailer's non-negotiable criteria. Bead & Reel only stocks vegan items. Pitching your best-selling leather clutch is a laughably bad idea. Imby only stocks American-made items. An artisan co-op in India is a non-starter. Niche retailers will immediately delete dozens of pitches because those brands didn't do basic research. Opening your cold call with a matching core value puts you ahead in the game before your competitors hear the whistle.
Lastly, I encourage telling someone when you'll follow-up. If you don't hear from a buyer, they're 1) not interested or 2) forgot about you. The buyer will either politely reject your pitch just so you’ll stop bothering them, or be pleased to hear from you again.
And please, for the love of all that is good and holy, spell my name right. I’m Tavie, not Tavi. Sara is not Sarah. Brittney is not Brittany.
A Detailed, Beautiful Linesheet
A polished linesheet isn't easy to put together. It requires several talents: Copywriting, photography, math, and graphic design. No joke, I still have a stack of Raven & Lily catalogs in my house, they look like high-fashion magazines.
The linesheet, not to be confused with the lookbook (but can be combined with one), should have all the information you can't fit into an email, like your origin story, and manufacturing processes, order minimums, payment terms, and terms & conditions.
Every item needs a clear product photograph (+1 for invisible mannequins), materials list, country of origin, and the wholesale cost vs. MSRP. Before I make a spreadsheet with my budget and chosen items, I go through the linesheet and list everything I want + wholesale cost + MSRP. From there, it's hours of calculations for profit margin, marketing costs, and potential ROI. Clicking between a PDF with your product photos and a spreadsheet organized by SKU adds another hour to this process.
I know a 10 page catalog is daunting. The longest I’ve gotten is 35 (and it was impeccable). If you don’t have time to learn InDesign, consider hiring a freelancer -- either on Upwork, or your teen cousin who needs a portfolio for her design school application.
As always, if you want me to break down a good linesheet, let me know. As I said, it’s a lot of work, and I don’t want to do it just for funsies. I hope I can offer some value to you and your budding sustainable business.
Eliminate as many steps as possible for me to give you money
The takeaway should be to find ways to save me time. Wholesale has a similar conversion funnel to retail ecommerce, tweaking your website's UI and/or email newsletters to make sure customers checkout.
If you feel lost and don’t know where to start, ask existing stocklists about your checkout process, or send them a survey asking what you can improve. How do they like to pay their invoices? PayPal? Wire Transfer? Have they ever forgotten an invoice, and what can you do to make sure they don’t miss out? Why didn’t they want to reorder? Was it the products, their budget, or a more competitive market?
The questions must have finite answers – absolutely no text boxes of doom. I answer about one survey a week, but click away as soon as I see “Explain how….”
Instead of saying “Explain how we can improve the checkout process,” ask, “Would you be more or less likely to place in order if we…”
Offer me solutions. Don’t expect me to solve your problems.
Did I miss anything? Am I completely wrong?
Are you a retailer who prefers a different approach? Are you a brand with a 100% success rate, doing something completely different than what I've said here? Do you think I'm a know-it-all who doesn't know my ass from my elbow? Let me know!
I’ll be first to admit my strategy might be flawed. I, as a store owner, didn’t like the buying process. I’m an intentional shopper in my everyday life. I don't meander around stores like my husband, who has to walk up and down every single godforsaken aisle at the grocery store to see what sorts of--
-- I digress. Sorry.
I have my list, I make a beeline for what I want, then leave. Sure, I'm not immune to a cleverly-placed impulse buy, but if you imagine every buyer – especially in ethical fashion – has a measured, time-sensitive approach, then you can create a measured, time-sensitive sales pitch that appeals to everyone.