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Flipping the Script: How CPG Brands Can Use Independent Retailers to Break into Big Retail

For most brands, jumping into big retail is like going into the jousting ring with no training, no armor, and a slow horse. You’ll be eaten alive…and it won’t be a pretty sight. Drama aside, this metaphor isn’t far from the very real experiences of countless emerging brands: they get on-shelf at large retailers, but […]

For most brands, jumping into big retail is like going into the jousting ring with no training, no armor, and a slow horse. You’ll be eaten alive…and it won’t be a pretty sight.

Drama aside, this metaphor isn’t far from the very real experiences of countless emerging brands: they get on-shelf at large retailers, but fail to sell off-shelf or sustain placement.

Without the right foundation—a market proven product, positioning, packaging, and pricing as well as sustained cash flow and the right people in place—you’ve lost the retail battle before you’ve even started.

So how should you prepare to joust?

Busting the myth of big retail first

Many industry vets share the same perspective: launch big retail first, in however many stores will take you.

The traditional path to retail looks a bit like this…

Initial traction (farmer’s market, DTC)
→ raise money
→ find distributors and brokers
→ get a big retail launch nationwide
→ spend like crazy on marketing
→ and if you survive the big retail launch, trickle down to smaller retailers.

This is the fairytale story: the knight from far-off lands who wins the tournament – and the hearts of the people.

After all, why waste time managing a bunch of small retailers, when you could get a big PO and go national?

And don’t get me wrong… when investment was heavier and CPG wasn’t so “hot,” this is the path that worked for brands!

But what worked 20, 10, even 5 years ago isn’t working now.

Today’s tournament looks different:

  • Big retail is more expensive than ever.
  • Consumer pockets are price sensitive—they’re less willing to try new brands.
  • Categories are oversaturated.
  • Today’s packaging, ingredients, and shipping costs add up to margins that are slimmer than ever.

Look, I want you to be in big retail – if that’s the right choice for you. But I also want to help you stay in business and reach your personal goals, whether that be making a local impact or selling to PepsiCo.

It’s time to flip the traditional script on retail.

The new path to retail

Say you’re a new brand: What do you need to do to come out with the right training, the right armor, the right horse?

For most brands, I would recommend this approach to retail entry:

Initial traction (farmer’s market, DTC)
→ continue slow growth into retail using alternative wholesale and independents
→ expand market awareness
→ until you either have proof of retail demand to take to chain retail or a chain retail buyer comes to you
→ find distributors & brokers to get you into the next chain
→ assess cash situation and profitability.

“Flipping the script” and starting with independent retailers…

  • …lowers barrier to entry in retail as a new brand
  • …enables you to learn what actually gets your product to sell off shelf
  • …teaches you how to manage a retail account—without the stakes of national retail failure
  • …reduces marketing expenses
  • …avoids slotting fees
  • …allows you to directly distribute (so you don’t overextend yourself with a distributor and their chargebacks)
  • …helps you perfect your pitch to buyers and shoppers
  • …builds a base of loyal accounts nationwide—sustaining your cash flow as you enter the wider market.

This is exactly how brands like Graza, Fly By Jing, and Oatly entered—and dominated—the retail market.

Here’s how you can too →

Build the Foundation: Product & Positioning

Young jouster, your training starts by looking inward – at what makes your brand, your brand. It’s time to build your armor for the retail world.

Too many brands skip to getting on-shelf without understanding truly: will my product actually sell off-shelf?

Ultimately, repurchase is the prerequisite of success in retail (covered up with fancy words like velocity and sell-through).

Let’s break it down.

Repurchase comes down to four foundational elements:

Will your product capture attention on-shelf on its own?
Will your product easily be placed in someone’s cart and taken to checkout?
Is your product experience pleasurable enough for the consumer to repurchase it again?
Is your product experience pleasurable enough for the consumer to seek out your product and tell all their friends about it??

Here’s how to start answering these:

Understand the space you’re filling on the shelf – and if you’re filling it in the way buyers need.

Go to stores and analyze the products on shelf in your category. Each one fills shelf space for a reason. Sounds simple, I know, but can you articulate your reason to be there?

Why does your product need to either add space to the shelf (growing demand in an overall category) or replace space on the shelf (growing demand for a specific niche subcategory)?

Build your value prop from the inside out

Want to win placement against big CPG? Start with what they can’t steal from you: your story.

You had a unique reason to bring this product to fruition—start there. This is the problem you’re solving.

Define how you’re solving it in a defensibly differentiated way (note: “the better-for-you version of X,” “best tasting X,” “the only X” won’t cut it. Those claims will be taken from you by new entrants).

Prove with data that you’ll sell off-shelf before you get on-shelf

Stop. Guessing. I know you think your product is great! But we need to show with data that it’s great!

I highly recommend testing the following before starting to sell onto shelves:

  • Get honest, unfiltered feedback on your product and if samplers would repurchase it
  • Get feedback on the “band of purchase” – the price that would feel too low, and the price that would feel too high for shoppers
  • Test your packaging against competitors you’ll be shelved next to and make sure you’re picked

Want a way to do that? I run a sampling program for clients within Product & Prosper.

Show Your Skills: Proof + Pitch

With fresh new armor: we can train you in the art of pitching.

Buyers receive countless pitches every day. If you want to stand out in their inbox, you need to answer their questions before they have to ask.

Like the knight training for the jousting ring: buyers need to know if you have the skills to stand up to the big guys.

  • Namely, who are your supporters (audience, celebrity endorsers, team and board members, awards, media attention, etc)? (This gives you Credibility)
  • What are your skills (sales, production, distribution, etc)? (This gives you Capability)
  • Have you won other fights? (This is you showing Cash Flow & Cash Potential – can you sell this thing?)

And it’s your job to provide that proof of Credibility, Capability, and Cash Flow/Cash Potential in every.single.touchpoint a buyer might have with your brand – your packaging, your emails, your sales materials, your website, everywhere.

Train Your Horse: Persist & Prosper

Now that you have the armor, the training, the buyer interest – what about our trusty steed?

We need a repeatable, persistent system by which to land new accounts and ensure your product will prosper.

Our system needs to have the following action items to be successful:

  • Order Management
  • Consistent Communication & Check Ins
  • Supporting Sales
  • Supporting Their Business

The way I like to think of this stage is as making a new friend. How do you make the buyer feel special, cared for, like you truly want to support them in succeeding? Because most independent retailers are small businesses too!

Consistency is key. This is what will grow your business.

Check your armor, practice your skills, train your horse: you’re ready to joust now.

Leveraging independent retail success

For many emerging CPG brands, independent retailers are the perfect training ground to gather the data that will get you into more doors down the line.

They give you real-world intel on things like:

  • How shoppers actually respond to your product on shelf
  • Purchasing behaviors and repurchase rates in your category
  • What resonates with consumers at the local level in different regions

This on-the-ground data = pure gold. It gives you credibility—it shows you’ve done your homework and know what it actually takes to move units.

It’s time to flip the script.

Look, I get the desire to land national retail right out of the gate. There’s no high like taking that first “shelfie” with your product on a big-name retail shelf.

But the traditional “national retail = instant success” script isn’t just outdated—it’s risky. The barriers to entry and costs are higher than ever before.

That’s why I’m proposing you flip the script on its head. Start small with independents, build a better foundation, gather early insights, finetune your retail ops—then take on the big retail jousting match.

And when do you actually take the time to get combat-ready? You lower upfront risks, establish a loyal customer base, and accumulate data that makes your brand an obvious choice for future buyers.

Want to build your retail foundation, but don’t know where to start?Product & Prosper will help train you for long-term success—both in and out of the jousting ring. Check out our programs here

Author: Caroline Grace

Founder & CEO at Product & Prosper, The Retail Lab, The Prosper Lab

Caroline Grace is the Founder & CEO at Product & Prosper where they’ve worked with over 100+ emerging CPG brands to help them build the right positioning, pitch, and plan — and to execute on it — so they can go-to-retail and WIN.

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