Establishing Wholesale Relationships as a Solopreneur

wholesale relationships

Just because you’re a One Woman Shop doesn’t mean there are limits to the scale at which you can produce and sell — are we right? In fact, we believe the potential extends further, as you naturally incur less overhead and own the decision-making power. (#girlboss) So when one of our members posted in the private Facebook group about setting up wholesale relationships, we took to our network and checked in with three business owners with wholesale experience to give us the ins and outs and help you get started. Here’s what Amanda Wright of Wit and Whistle, Mei Pak of Creative Hive, and Jennifer Hill of JHill Design had to say:

Tell us a bit about your current wholesale relationships and how they tie into the rest of your business.

Amanda: I’ve been super lucky with wholesale. As Wit & Whistle has organically grown, the retailers have come to me! Over the years I’ve maintained a strongly branded, active presence on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and my own blog/website. This tangled web of Wit & Whistle has snagged many retailers browsing the internet for products to sell. A lot of retailers turn to Etsy when looking for potential vendors, so maintaining a retail shop there has been a great resource, too. Etsy Wholesale is fairly new, but it has already been a wonderful way for me to connect with new wholesalers. If you’re serious about wholesale, it’s important to have your own gorgeous, professional-looking website to build your credibility. Make sure there’s an easy to spot “wholesale” page that includes a link to your catalog and any other information a retailer might need to get in touch with you and place an order.

Mei: My jewelry business, Tiny Hands, currently sells in over 100 stores across the United States. Most of the stores I sell to are smaller gift shops so I have the opportunity to get to know the shop owners well. In the first two years of taking on wholesale, my business quickly grew to multiple six-figure sales. Half of that can be attributed to wholesale, so it has definitely played a major role in my business. I love being able to diversify my income streams. When it’s a slow month for online retail sales, I can count on wholesale orders to pick up. It’s been great for stability and has even helped grow my retail sales because I have a wider reach in the market and more people have seen my brand!

Jennifer: Wholesale is a small part of our business. Our main piece is direct-to-consumer via our website. But we are always working to grow our wholesale business.

What is your best advice for first establishing contact with potential wholesalers? Do you recommend stopping in to the store, calling, reaching out via email, or something else?

Mei: First and foremost, check the store’s website if they have product submission guidelines. If not, then always email a store instead of walking in. If you can’t find an appropriate email contact, then your best bet is to call the store to ask. The majority of stores prefer being pitched to by email. It doesn’t put them on the spot, and it gives them time to check out your line. It also helps them keep organized with the dozens, if not hundreds of product pitches they receive every week.

If you want to take it a step further, try to establish a connection with the store owners or buyers on social media before you send them an email. That way, they’ll be familiar with who you are and more receptive of your email pitch.

Jennifer: Knowing many store owners, I always think it is best to email first. They are so busy and rarely have the time to review a product at the drop of a dime. Make the email personable, showing that you have researched the store. You may want to mention display ideas so the retailer can begin to picture your goods in their shop.

What makes for a great wholesale relationship?

Amanda: Openness and honesty. I appreciate it so much when my retailers give me feedback on how I can improve my goods and ideas for new products. It’s important to keep in touch with your wholesalers throughout the year, and update them about new collections. This year I’m hoping to print a beautiful Wit & Whistle lookbook to mail out and start sending occasional email newsletters.

Mei: You are all on the same side — you want the store to sell your products well and as a result, they’ll make more orders with you. So make it easy for them. Ship your orders when you say you will. Package your products so they grab a customer’s attention. Offer marketing support to your store’s retail staff. You can educate them on your product’s background to help them talk about and sell your work. Offer to exchange items that aren’t selling for ones that are. Follow up with them to check in on sales. This will all help a store feel taken care of and will make for a great relationship.

Jennifer: Stay in touch and promote them! We always give a shout out on social media when we send a new shipment to our retailers. When we open a new account we send an email blast to our customers in the new store’s area letting them know they can get our goods in person. We also reach out to local press.

What’s one thing that you never thought of prior to establishing a wholesale relationship that you’ve since learned from?

Amanda: It took me a while to grasp that there are different packaging needs when selling wholesale. When a retail customer orders from my website, they get a complete product description on the page. When my products are for sale in stores, the packaging has to communicate everything the customer needs to know. For example, when I first started wholesaling, many of my greeting cards had messages printed inside, but I would package them in sealed cellophane sleeves. In store, customers had no clue what was printed inside the cards! I didn’t even think about it until one of my retailers asked if I could put stickers on the backs that disclosed the inside messages. Oops! My wholesale selling experience has mostly been trial and error, and sometimes I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing! I figure that’s probably normal. (At least I hope!)

Mei: It’s important to create an irresistible package that makes your product easy to buy. When I started doing wholesale, I just thought having a catalog was all I needed. Later, I put together a package of my best-selling products along with a display rack, tailored to individual stores. That way, instead of just giving stores the option to mix-and-match products, I presented an easy “starter package” for the store that eased the decision-making burden on them and helped tremendously to push sales for me.

Jennifer: Be flexible on terms. Some of our big accounts only pay Net 30; some of our small accounts prefer to pay by bank wire transfer or credit card. We are happy to work with each one.

Have you ever had a wholesale relationship that didn’t go well? What did you learn?

Amanda: I learned that when working with large, nationwide retailers I need to ask if I can read through their vendor manual before accepting any purchase orders (POs). This is especially important if the vendor doesn’t usually work with independent makers. Keeping up with some retailers’ vendor requirements is a full time job in and of itself. It’s difficult to follow hundreds of pages of requirements written for huge factories in Asia when you’re a one-woman operation working out of your suburban basement. Some retailers will even charge you expensive fees if you miss a single step (yes, I also learned that the hard way). Don’t be afraid of working with big retailers, just be vigilant and know what you’re getting into before you start.

Mei: There was one store that was so difficult to work with. They caused so much trouble and every email they sent was a headache to deal with. The last straw was when they tried to reorder way less than my minimum amount. I told them it wasn’t enough for a reorder but in return they berated my work and threatened that they would buy products similar to mine from a different and cheaper source. At that point, I fired them and took back all of my products to end the relationship.

It’s crucial that you sell to the right stores. Sometimes you won’t know if it’s a right fit until after the first order, so it’s hard to avoid these kinds of mishaps. Stand by your product and your wholesale terms and policies. They are there for a reason. When you start bending the rules, some people may take advantage of you. It’s okay to end a wholesale relationship. Some stores just don’t work out.

Have you discovered any downsides of wholesaling? Anything potential wholesalers should be weary of?

Amanda: For me, the only downside to wholesaling has been that it’s more difficult to introduce new types of products. My goods are made in small batches, which means they cost more per piece to manufacture than if I were having them produced in massive quantities. When I get an idea for a new kind of product, I have to make sure I can produce it at a low enough cost that I can sell it at reasonable wholesale rates (50% off retail). At the same time, I have to keep my inventory at manageable levels, because I can only sell so much product, and only have so much storage room in my studio! It’s a tricky balance. I have some products that I just can’t sell to my wholesalers due to the tight profit margins.

Mei: Be sure you have your systems in place. Doing wholesale really tests your process of manufacturing your product in bulk to packaging and shipping them out in a timely manner. The leaks in your systems become apparent with wholesale because you’re dealing with such large numbers compared to a retail order. Be aware of the time you’ll need to spend managing stores as well as acquiring new ones and fulfilling orders. Get your systems down pat and you’ll do great!

Jennifer: Putting together the orders can sometimes take more time than we expect, but in the end it is worth it. Also sending out cold emails to people can sometimes feel like a waste of time. That is one reason that we are looking more at trade shows.

Going forward, how much do you plan to keep wholesaling as part of your business?

Amanda: I hope the wholesale side of my business continues to grow like crazy.  It has been a great source of income for me, and it’s so satisfying to watch the list of retailers that carry Wit & Whistle goods get longer and longer!

Mei: I would love to keep wholesale and retail sales an even split. But the market and technology changes so quickly that not everything is within our control. So, I go wherever my business takes me. If wholesaling opportunities keep coming my way, I won’t turn them down and if it so happens to become all of my business, I’ll just need to adapt and hire more help!

Jennifer: We are hoping to start doing more wholesale in 2016 and begin the trade show circuit!

Thanks so much, ladies!

OWS readers: after the fantastic information shared by Amanda, Mei, and Jennifer, what other questions do you have about establishing wholesale relationships as a One Woman Shop? Tell us in the comments below!

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